Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Greeks - H.D.F. Kitto

Upon re-reading Kitto's classic work, what struck me the most, this time, was the extent to which the Greeks viewed life and the world holistically. Seeing oneself, not as an isolated entity, but as part of a greater system, both socially and cosmically, informed much concerning how the Greeks situated themselves within the world. Particulars of men and actions were seen to be larger universals made manifest in the world. As such, nothing, not even the actions of people, could be said to be wholly capricious. The strength of this perspective is that it pushes for broad and integrative thinking. Perhaps the failure is a tendency to impose a certain type of order where one may not exist.

With all of reality a unity much of the lessons passed down from the Greeks take on a different tenor. Kitto tells us that, in the early days of Classical Greece, it was thought that one could literally know all that was needed from Homer. This is not because the Greeks simply strove to blindly ape some elusive Homeric ideal. Rather, it is the belief that Homer spoke to unalterable universals in the human condition, and gave example of how to meaningfully address them, that his influence was so broad and deep. The Illiad, Kitto writes, is not simply the story of a ten-year battle by King Agamemnon and his allies to overthrow Prium's city and stronghold - if it were, there would be little insight to be gained more broadly. What is crucial about Homer's work is that it demonstrates how the willfulness, stubbornness and arrogance of men can bring about the downfall of thousands and transform the world. It is the quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon which gives the work its most moral thrust. It is from the resulting fallout of this exchange that men were meant to learn what it means to live in this world.

The delicate balance of the particular and the universal was first achieved in the West by the Greeks (at least in the literate sphere). Their impact on Western society, and indeed, the World, can never be measured or fully fathomed. What occured in the Peloponnese from 480bce-340bce rings throughout history. For better or worse we are all children of the Greeks.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Meaning of Evolution - Robert Richards

Charles Darwin, has, in death, become somewhat a victim of his own success. So argues Robert Richards in The Meaning of Evolution. Because of the central role that evolutionary thinking has played in the development of the life sciences over the past one hundred and fifty years, Richards tells us that too many scholars retroactively impose latter-day understandings onto Darwin's thinking on evolution. Authorities no less than Gould have read Darwin's work in a neo-Darwinian light; thus marginalizing the historicity of Darwin's scientific thinking and his situatedness within a developing scientific community.

While the evolutionary thinking of Darwin may strike us as a bolt of lightning from the sky, Richards shows us the critical import of properly placing Darwin within his own time. Acknowledging the great man's place within a scientific community, among such laudable peers as Huxley, Owen and Hooker, the reader is given Charles Darwin as a man growing and learning and responding to itself an evolving corpus of scientific thought. Understanding the formative role of this corpus and these other men is crucial because it allows the reader to properly place Darwin's thinking; coloring and fleshing out his insights.

Of course, this also means acknowledging where Darwin went wrong. Though Richards clearly holds the resident of Down House in the highest regard (as is due to him), he does not shy away from highlighting Darwin's mistakes and the shortcomings in his theories. In this slim work Richards has turned the nifty trick of presenting Darwin's thinking with nuance and critique while acknowledging the crucial role that even Darwin's misguided understandings played in the formation of his greatest works. This is no mean feet. Anyone interested in better understanding the thoughts of this titanic figure of Western thought, is well served by Richards work.