By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Do Like the Romans

Quinquereme and Corvus (A Roman warship and an...
Quinquereme and Corvus (A Roman warship and an assault bridge, First Punic War) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Romans attached corvi to their ships so they c...
Romans attached corvi to their ships so they could board and seize enemy vessels. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Well, do so if you are a likable fellow with good character and goals! (If you are a jerk or a creep, skip this post.)

During the First Punic War (264-241 B.C.) with Carthage, Rome had no choice but to challenge Carthaginian naval power. And Rome was bold enough to do it:

No better proof could be given of the self-confidence of the city and its determination to win. There was no naval tradition, no experience of shipbuilding, no trained crews. A grounded Carthaginian ship had to be used as a model with crews being trained on land as the first hundred quinqueremes were being built, according to the historian Polybius in only sixty days.

Charles Freeman, Egypt, Greece, and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean 2nd ed. (Oxford Univ. Press, 2004), p. 384.

Yet, the war remained very difficult for Rome; but, in the end, she won with a grand naval victory: the newcomer to naval fighting beat the veteran at naval warfare.


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Friday, December 28, 2012


The philosopher José Ortega y Gasset asserted that "clarity is the courtesy" of the true philosopher. I would like to add that conciseness is also the courtesy of any writer. When I get longish (really longish) messages, I wonder if the writer ever puts himself or herself in the shoes of the reader. Can it really be that verbose and excessively lengthy ruminations are worth the time of the reader?

The Gettysburg Address was short. The parables of Jesus are short. So, if even Lincoln and Jesus were concise, why should you and I not try to be concise? I am also willing to bet that concision and brevity are the admission fees to genuine insight and creativity. One artist tells us that "creativity is subtraction," meaning that what we take out is as important as what we put into a work (see point no. 10 in the above image). Enough said.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Merry Christmas and Happy 2013!

To all my readers everywhere in the world, thanks and:

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

¡Feliz Navidad y Prospero Año Nuevo! (Spanish)

Felix Dies Nativitatis et Felix Annus Novus! (Latin)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Are They Really Brilliant? What Then Is Brilliance?

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That question reverberates as I read the delightful book called Wittgenstein's Poker which recounts a famous but murky confrontation between philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper in 1946 in a Cambridge academic gathering. The author takes this incident and regales us with the personalities and issues that shaped a certain portion of the philosophical world in the 20th century, the world of analytic or linguistic philosophy.

Yet, I keep asking myself: these are supposed to be brilliant men--the likes of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, yet I get the creeping sense that they were in some fundamental sense blind: they poured their lives into questions that just seem too simplistic to anyone with well-developed intellectual intuition and sensitivity. Russell began the century by trying to prove formalistically that mathematics was a self-contained system of logical axioms with no need to refer to other sorts of assumptions, such as empirical assumptions. Well, even Russell admitted the failure of that project. But Euclid could have told him the project was a waste of time: mathematics must begin with intuitive, non-logically dictated assumptions in order to go anywhere. All high school geometry students do (or did) know that. (For details, see this article.) To be fair, we can at least term Russell's failure a glorious failure because of its pioneering work in symbolic logic.

Wittgenstein (at least in his first phase) set out to map out language with an aesthetically pleasing mathematical precision to clear up the confusions of his intellectual inferiors. Well, he gave up that project as a failure and moved on to the supposedly novel insight that you determine the meaning of words by their context ("family resemblances" in the lingo of Wittgenstein). Any half-conscious student or teacher of Latin (or any other foreign language) could have told you that. When you open a good Latin dictionary, you get a zillion definitions for one word--definitions varying almost infinitely with the context of a particular use by a particular author. Take a look at one of the many long entries in the famous Lewis & Short Latin Dictionary for proof.

Brilliant men pursuing oddly stupid quests. This picture is something to ponder--and something to make us reevalutate how we define brilliance. It almost seems that personal psychology and its neuroses create certain intellectual projects rather than such projects' being the offspring of some brilliant intuition.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Liberal Walking Caricature

Now part two of the short series on ideological walking caricatures--types that are recognizable in reality although certainly no one individual will fit all the markers described. But the type is real enough to evoke a general, typological description.

The liberal walking caricature is marked by a gigantic self-contradiction: the self-anointed messiah for the oppressed is ironically obsessed with distinctions of elite prestige: the best high school, the best university, the best neighborhood, the best consumer good. Just take a look at the glossy supplements to the New York Times on fashion or its real estate section which portray an exaggerated fascination with luxury that confirms the worst fears of those who view American decline as following the pattern of ancient Rome.

In lavish restaurants in privileged enclaves, the liberal caricatures worry about the masses and about global warming's effects. Liberalism becomes the way the elite can feel noble and superior in its condescension. 

All of which brings us full circle: the liberal and conservative caricatures are both quite elitist precisely because the personality that becomes caricature is so insecure that it must desperately embrace an in-group identity that makes it superior to those outside. In some conservative caricatures, it takes on ethnic and racial overtones. Liberal caricatures hide such ethnic or family markers better and often substitute rankings of academic prestige to draw boundaries of alleged superiority.

The insecure personality gives us both of these caricatures--a type of personality that is a poor guide to anything practically useful for us and for society as a whole. Such a personality type is useless because it is divorced from reality. For reality demands humility, the humility that, ironically, only the secure personality can embrace.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Conservative Walking Caricature

To be fair, my next post will be entitled "The Liberal Walking Caricature."  Both posts lampoon the absurdity of the  ideologue whose insecurity makes him a walking caricature.

The conservative walking caricature (in this case, the caricature is real and alive, not just imagined or falsely painted) becomes attached to his conservative identity as if all social problems have one cookie-cutter solution. He often is fastidious about dress, which is in fact a somewhat effeminate trait at odds with the ostensibly rugged conservative ethos. He is usually rigid in social relations and anxious to make comparisons. He is also very attached to his own opinions as if they were delphic pronouncements. In other words, the conservative walking caricature is barely human and often robotic. As a psychologist would say: the authoritarian personality eager to follow an authority. (Some have even theorized that in some cases the rigidity of political views may be related to cases of suppressed homosexuality--which, of course, would be quite ironic! See link.)

And people wonder why so many just tune them out. Maybe, it's time to look in the mirror. The psychology of insecurity yields the caricature. Next time, we will look at the liberal walking caricature who is also full of self-contradictions.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Quixotically Astounding

Read this astounding story of what an illegal immigrant did for his local church (photo above). See link. If it sounds like something Don Quixote would do, well, the immigrant's last name is, after all, Cervantes.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Change It!

Better translation: "I am I and my circumstance; and, if I do not save it, I do not save myself."

«Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia, y si no la salvo a ella, no me salvo yo.» (From Meditations on Quixote, 1914)

We find ourselves in a particular circumstance in order to transform that circumstance, not to leave it unaffected. By not leaving it unaffected, we affect others and their circumstance.

Compassion Trumps All

self-esteem, groups and hate
self-esteem, groups and hate (Photo credit: Will Lion)
We look at people and can often say: he gets his self-worth from his  money or his career or IQ or even from a real or mythic ethnic identity or family background, or various combinations of these and many other things, including outward religious practices and labels that remain superficial. We say that because we do the same or are in the process, especially in youth, of finding that "thing" which we call identity which will give us our self-worth. Often, in human history, that search for identity has taken a dark turn and has led to the denigration of those on the outside.

Fortunately, with time and maturation, wise people realize that none of those "things" in fact satisfies. Rather, wisdom teaches that all of those "things" are, as said long ago, by a Hebrew sage: vanity of vanities, wispy vapors and fogs that do not last.

What then does "make" us? My own unoriginal but life-earned insight is this: compassion for others makes us. Our identity lies in giving ourselves to nourish others so we can see them flourish. If that is the law of  life, then we foolishly waste our lives talking a lot of nonsense about what school I attended or my ancestry or my portfolio. In many ways, the conventional pillars of our self are cheap narcotics that keep distancing ourselves from what is really true about us. But we keep it up because, in the absence of anything else, the false crutches salve the pain of insecurity as we lurch from year to year. Yet, the solution to this crippling way of life is to forget about your own insecurity and to address the needs and insecurities of others!

Many religions and philosophies have told us the same thing: compassion is your passion. Yet, only one religion actually has the deity himself execute that mission by actually being "crazy" enough to become one of us vulnerable humans. I think you know of what I speak. Nothing more need be said.

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Monday, December 3, 2012

Making Ancient Rome Come Alive

Marcus Tullius Cicero, by Bertel Thorvaldsen a...
Marcus Tullius Cicero, by Bertel Thorvaldsen as copy from roman original, in Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As I make my way through a lengthy Latin graduate reading list, I sometimes need a dose of inspiration to keep going. I find such inspiration in reading high quality historical fiction on ancient Rome. Those of you who want to experience getting excited about the great names of ancient Rome such as Cicero, Caesar, and Cato should take a look at the following books which I highly recommend. The Robert Harris books are my favorites. Steven Saylor is also good. These authors have been recommended by a classicist whose opinion I trust; and they make use of ancient historical sources such as Sallust, Livy, and Pliny the Younger.

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