A Discourse on Inequality

I read “A Discourse on Inequality” back during the last week of Term 1 classes, in November. Since I’m writing this blog post from memory, what I write (the impressions I had of this text, what I found memorable) will be what I ultimately took from the text. Rousseau essentially sums up the soul of his argument on page 67, when he wrote “the more we acquire new knowledge, the more we deprive ourselves of the means of acquiring the most important knowledge of all; and, in a sense, it is through studying man that we have rendered ourselves incapable of knowing him.”

 

What I gather from this bit here is that Rousseau is, in a way, condemning society. Rousseau believes that the more sophisticated societies usually end up giving advantages to the stronger and more intelligent members, while the weaker are taken advantage of by the stronger. When Rousseau used the word “knowledge” in the above text, he meant “society.” He also meant the more humans tried to protect themselves by forming alliances and banding with other humans in ways which we now called “forming a society,” what we’re really doing is ridding ourselves of our “primitive state” (67). I don’t think Rousseau believes society is good for humanity. We’re much better off living as one with nature. That way, we aren’t led astray by the thought of acquiring materialistic possessions and wealth as we would in society. I think Rousseau treasures humanity in a ‘pure’ state; that is, a state that isn’t contaminated by the temptations that society offers, so he’s scornful of the growth of civilization.

 

Rousseau also made it clear in the beginning that he wanted to live in “a state where the delectable habit of meeting and knowing one another made love of country a love for fellow citizens rather [than] a love for the land” (57). From this sentence, I don’t think Rousseau believes it’s possible for people to have a love for their fellow citizens and a love for the land. Or maybe I’m misinterpreting his text… (remember, I’m typing up this blog post about a book I read a month ago!) and Rousseau believes that if a person is consumed by a greed or lust for the ownership of the land, then they gradually place a love for their citizens as secondary. Either way, Rousseau doesn’t have a high opinion of humans. He thinks they’re greedy and easily led astray as though we were all Eves in the Garden of Eden, with numerous serpents slithering in every corner. Society, then, is the serpent. Man in the so-called “primitive state” is Adam and Eve when they were in the Garden of Eden.

And that’s what stood in my memory after little more than a month of reading this text.


Introduction

Alright, now it’s time for me to start my long overdue blog post introducing myself. My name is Yi Le Lu (pronounced Yee-La), and I have lived in Canada (specifically British Columbia) since I was 4 years old. I have attended 6 elementary schools and 1 high school prior to coming to UBC. For those of you who are interested in which 6 elementary schools I have been to, they are listed in the following chronological order: Florence Nightingale, Lord Nelson, Rock City, Charles Dickens Annex, Florence Nightingale (again!), Charles Dickens, and Marlborough (my favourite elementary school as well as my favourite school of all time, including UBC). All of my elementary schools are located in Vancouver, with two exceptions; Rock City is located in Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, and Marlborough is in Burnaby, where I now live. For those of you who are wondering why I have mentioned Florence Nightingale twice, it’s because I attended Nightingale for Kindergarten, part of Grade 1, and when I moved back to Vancouver from Nanaimo, I returned to Nightingale (my 2nd favourite elementary school) after a brief, 3 day stay at nearby Charles Dickens Annex. Those who are interested as to why I stayed 3 days at Charles Dickens Annex can comment on this blog post and ask.
My interests include reading, writing, horseback riding, and travelling to Canadian as well as American national parks. One of my favourite places to travel to is the Canadian Rockies. I’ve already been there 3 times but I’m still not tired of it. I also go horseback riding during the spring, summer and early fall months. I have taken English riding lessons in the past, but now I ride Western. I ride in Campbell Valley Park, which is a beautiful equestrian park located in Langley and very close to the Canadian-US border. My parents were willing to make the 1 hour drive from Burnaby to south Langley every week in order to let me ride! And I think the fact that I ride regularly also allowed me to tell UBC one more thing about myself when I applied.
For those of you who managed to read this entire blog post and not get bored in the process- I really commend you for your ability to do so! I’m going to skip over the typical ending posts where people write “I can’t wait to meet you all!” because I have already met you all already, and say instead- Thank goodness the term is ending soon!


Leviathan

In some ways, “Leviathan” isn’t always an enjoyable read. It can be boring. It can make you sleepy. It can be difficult to find out what the author is trying to say and what he means. Other times, I actually found it a very interesting read. There was one chapter in particular which I found a very illuminating read- the Chapter entitled Of Religion. In it, Hobbes explains how religion is derived from people’s lack of confidence, low self esteem, and fear of the unknown. This is why they pray to a higher (and supposedly benevolent) power. I never thought of religion in this light. If someone had asked me in the past about the origins of religion, my mind would immediately have thought of Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses or the Bible where Adam and Eve are in the Garden of Eden. It never occurred to me to think that in reality, the origins of religion stem from humans and their uncertainty regarding the future.

 

Now that I have taken this into account, I have to say, many things stem from fear of the unknown. Religion is only one of them. It’s because humans fear the unknown that a variety of other things come into place- I mean, the fact that humans continue to live rather than die is also something that comes from uncertainty. Hamlet once said in his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, “that the dread of something after death/The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn/No traveller returns, Puzzles the will,/And makes us rather those ills we have,/Than fly to others that we know not of.” So it’s fear of the unknown that we have religion, and partly why there’s life. So I’d say there’s a lot to say about humans and their fear and lack of confidence over things we have no control over. If there’s one thing I got out of “Leviathan”, I think it’s this one chapter, Of Religion, which particularly stood out.

 

Another chapter that I found very intriguing is the chapter entitled Of Man. On page 30, Hobbes gives a list of words and how they are connected to one another. He links together Hope, Despair, Fear, Courage, Anger, Confidence, Diffidence, Indignation, Benevolence, Good Nature, Covetousness, Ambition, Pusillanimity, Magnanimity, Valour, Liberality, Miserableness, Kindness, and Natural Lust, etc. one after another, with a one sentence explanation how each is connected to the others. I think it’s a brilliant piece of writing. I think “Leviathan” has some very fascinating chapters, as well some chapters that can be termed a “bedtime story chapter” (one where it helps you fall asleep after reading). But if someone asked me if I’d recommend this book to them, I would definitely recommend it. I think it’s an eye-opener in some chapters, a book that can really expand your way of thinking.


Robinson Crusoe

I first encountered “Robinson Crusoe” in one of my least favourite elementary schools. My teacher read us a rewritten version of Daniel Defoe’s famous work. Back then, I didn’t pay much attention to it because, well, I found it boring. To be fair, I was in Grade four at the time and I guess any nine year old would probably agree with me. The next time I read “Robinson Crusoe”, I read an abridged version. I managed to finish it in two days and I found it more enjoyable than when I first had it read to me in Grade four. My third time reading it was recently, for Arts One. It took me little less than a week to finish the entire book, and I admit, the beginning was very dull. However, the book picked up action when you get to the middle and end, and then reading became less of a chore and was actually -if you’d believe it- exciting.

 

I found the part where Robinson Crusoe encounters the cannibals and mutineers very interesting. It’s not as interesting to hear Robinson talk about his life before the shipwreck, but once he is stranded on the island, the book becomes much more worth reading. One of the things that makes Daniel Defoe’s work very debatable is Robinson’s habit of lecturing the reader. By “debatable” I mean discussable. Robinson Crusoe talks about his former sins and the need to appreciate what one has in life a number of times throughout the book. Sometimes, I found it annoying. The abridged version I read years ago cut out all of his philosophizing and concentrated on the overall story. But I admit, reading the complete “Robinson Crusoe” was more illuminating than the abridged version. Sure, it got dull at times, but you do find a treasure trove of material to discuss from the book.

 

A recurring theme that I found in the book was that of religion and Christianity. God appears many times in “Robinson Crusoe”- once, in Robinson’s dream, where He is depicted as angry and wishes to destroy Robinson for his inability to appreciate what God has already given him.  God’s powers and mercy towards humankind are also present throughout the book. In some ways, I found that the book was about learning to respect what we had, and that what we take for granted everyday can be easily taken away by God. In other ways, “Robinson Crusoe” can also be a coming-of-age story. It’s true that Robinson is not what you would call “young” even in the beginning, but he does mature rapidly throughout the book. He learns to embrace religion and even tolerate cannibalism because, as he reasons, cannibals don’t realize that it’s morally wrong to eat human flesh. Nor did most people in Defoe’s time believe that eating animal flesh was wrong. Vegetarians were few and far between.


The Tempest

Out of all the plays Shakespeare wrote, I’ve only read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear. These plays and a handful of his sonnets. The most recent of his play that I’ve read would be The Tempest. This play is probably the most boring of all the Shakespearian plays that I’ve been fortunate enough to read. Don’t get me wrong, I am quite a fan of Shakespeare and almost everything he wrote is beyond amazing. It’s just that having read his other plays (listed above), I expected more action to take place. The Tempest doesn’t have a lot of action. Pretty much the whole play is about Prospero and his daughter Miranda stuck on an island. Add a whole bunch of talking, a creepy servant, an unrealistic romance between Miranda and Ferdinand that happens immediately after they meet, and a lot of forgiving.

 

What sets The Tempest apart from Shakespeare’s other plays is just that- forgiving. Forgiving and the happy ending. I’m more familiar with his tragedies, where almost everyone dies. King Lear was the last Shakespeare play I read in high school and it’s still fresh in my mind. It was also probably the saddest play, in my opinion. The Tempest did not once make tears spring into my eyes and at the end, everything is happy. Prospero forgives his brother Antonio for usurping his title, Miranda and Ferdinand are going to marry, and Propero’s servant, Ariel, is going to be set free. Nothing to feel upset over. This is what makes The Tempest different and un-special. It’s different because it’s so different from Shakespeare’s tragedies. It’s not special enough to stand out into my memory because I don’t see what there is to talk about in this play. I think I’m more of a fan of tragedies. I enjoyed reading Medea and Oedipus Rex, where there’s more depth and substance to have an interesting conversation. Maybe it’s because my literary tastes focus more on the dark and tragic.

 

Now, if there’s going to another genre talk, I’d classify this play as being under the “Shakespeare” genre. I think Shakespeare should his own little genre. Certainly he’s famous enough to have a genre named in his honour. What I mean by “Shakespeare” genre is when the characters all talk like Elizabethans and the play is meant to be read for pleasure (I mean, Shakespeare wrote his plays for the theatre and for the queen to watch!), and for the purpose of illuminating oneself on human beings. There’s something very human about Shakespeare’s plays.  There’s also something very modern and teenage-y about Hamlet when he complains about how it’s his job to avenge his father, who died because his uncle poured poison into his ear. When the reader actually reads Shakespeare, it’s also like holding up a mirror and seeing oneself in it, in a way.


“The Prince” by Machiavelli

Before actually reading Machiavelli’s work “The Prince”, I had skimmed through it to see what kind of reading awaited me. Back then, my first impression was, Oh no, this is going to be like reading Plato’s “Republic” again. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case. Not only was I able to follow Machiavelli’s arguments and find his writing interesting, I was able to think through what he was saying and in some cases, apply it to real life. I still have the occasional nightmare involving Plato. I doubt this is going to happen with Machiavelli.

            Machiavelli reveals to the reader an instruction manual on how to be a good leader and how to keep power. Some of the things that he says are quite the opposite of what I initially believed, such as how Machiavelli believes that a ruler would be better off being feared than loved, so long as he wasn’t hated. I used to think that a ruler should be loved rather than feared. I mean, when I first formed this notion that rulers should be loved, I thought of my teachers in elementary schools. I certainly preferred a teacher who I liked than a teacher than I was afraid of! Then again, teachers aren’t exactly rulers (you figure this out after you graduate from elementary schools). Rulers are quite different, and of course, in Machiavelli’s time, rulers meant kings and queens. Not rulers as in a Prime Minister that you elect and vote for. Maybe a monarch in Machiavelli’s time was better off being feared than loved, with the requirement that they weren’t hated. As I read this, one of the things that came to mind was Queen Elizabeth I of England and her half sister, Mary Tudor. Mary I of England, even though I don’t hate her (I honestly found her one of the most pitiful figures in History), was hated during her reign for burning Protestants. She was feared and hated. The result? There was a rebellion during her reign. When her successor and half sister Elizabeth took over after her death, Elizabeth was feared and loved, and she certainly wasn’t hated in the general sense. The result was a very prosperous reign.

            I also asked myself a few times while reading “The Prince”, how exactly should I read this literary work? I don’t think of this book as being a philosophical text or a history book. Would this genre be under the classification of an “instruction manual”? Then again, instruction manual makes me think of those instruction manuals that come with an IKEA purchase, that tells you how to build a chair or a sofa, etc. This is a subjective work. In the end, I just read “The Prince” the way I did with every other book. I read it, thought over the parts that lingered in my memory, and then proceeded to write this blog post.         


Christopher Columbus

Even though I don’t find Christopher Columbus to be a likeable character at all, one thing that I found interesting about this book The Four Voyages was being able to see things from Columbus’ perspective. In high school, we were taught how Spain, Britain and France’s quest for colonization brought down much suffering on the First Nations people who originally lived where the European nations later colonized. In this book, you get to see things from the perspective of the first European who “found” America. And of course, Columbus conveniently omitted how the Indigenous people were actually treated, focusing on how he would convert them into Christians. In fact, he doesn’t seem to show any remorse about the way he was treating the Aboriginals. He talks about how he traded with them, but he calls his business trade. A far better word to call his conduct would be how he cheated the Indigenous people.

Many wars have been waged over religion. The feuds over whose religion was “true” and “better” have existed for centuries and continues to this day. Perhaps this is why I find the topic of religion rather intriguing. I doubt Isabella of Castile would have approved of Columbus’ actions if she knew the extent of the Natives’ suffering. She’s obviously a very religious woman, but religious doesn’t always equate to being a good person. Most of the Europeans in The Four Voyages are so-called devout Christians, devoted to converting the heathens to embracing Christianity. But sometimes you wonder if this conquest for colonization is really about religion, or whether it’s really a quest to make a financial profit. Does religion = quest for riches? Does religion = power and domination? The questions are answered to a certain extent in The Four Voyages.

I think one should take into account that Columbus has a dual personality in this book. One side to Columbus is that he’s a God-loving, religious man. He has no other desire in exploring other than to convert heathens into religious people and devoted to serving the monarchs of Spain. The other side is the selfish Columbus, who wants money and fame. This would be the interweaving of religion and desire for wealth.

And notice how desire for wealth later subsumes religion. Columbus rather reminds me of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He just lacks Kurtz’s epiphany at the end, because I don’t remember him showing any regret or guilt for his actions.


Beowulf

This was my second time reading “Beowulf”, having it for the first time back in Grade 12. But back then we didn’t read the entire poem in my English Literature class; we read only an excerpt and we didn’t go into great detail about Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother or with the dragon.

There was one thing that I noticed about “Beowulf”: Every character fits into one of two categories. You’re either good or you’re bad. For instance, Beowulf is 100% good or 100% hero. He never fears and puts every effort into winning a battle against a monster. Grendel and his mother are 100% monsters and evil to the core. There are no redeeming qualities about them at all. I find that in the real world, nobody is 100% good or 100% evil. We’re all somewhere in between. “Beowulf”, on the other hand, believe that you’re either black or you’re white. There are no shades of grey in human nature. I prefer reading the ancient Greek tragedies because I find that they are better able to portray human nature. The Greek tragedies focus on believability and the complexities of human nature rather than on shining the limelight on one individual. This was one of the reasons why I didn’t find “Beowulf” that appealing. The whole play simply consists of Beowulf defeating various monsters and how he manages to bring home great rewards. I liked the epic poem overall (certainly much more than Plato’s “Republic”!) but I felt that it lacked certain qualities that I look for in a good read.

What would’ve made me favour “Beowulf” more is if we were told more about Grendel and his mother. I honestly find them more interesting than the heroic Beowulf. Other than the fact that we’re told they live isolated from human beings and that they enjoy devouring human flesh, there’s not much else that we’re told about them. They’re the outsiders, just lurking beyond the reach of humans. Every so often they cross that boundary between human and monster. When they do, they wreck destruction. I think that the writer of “Beowulf” must’ve been a rather narrow-minded person because he was able to perfectly categorize every character into the insider and outsider category, the all good or all evil. The writer also tells people of the consequences of having the outsider (aka. the monster) cross into the “insider” category. Is the writer trying to state that people should simply kill all the outsiders and create a world where everyone is all-good?


Which came first: the chicken or the egg?

The chicken-and-egg question is by no means a new question. It’s a question that can go both ways and nobody knows which really came first into existence. In the case of Oedipus Rex, it is arguable both ways whether he controlled his own fate or whether fate controlled his life.

 

When Oedipus was born, a prophecy was made that stated he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. In fear of this prophecy, he was left to die as an infant with his ankles bound on the orders of his parents. Oedipus manages to come out alive anyway because the servant who was ordered to leave him to die felt pity on him and gave him away. Fast forward into the future and during a roadside brawl, he kills his biological father Laius and marries his mother Jocasta. Was the prophecy really fulfilled or did fate happen because it was shaped by the actions of Oedipus and his parents? This is the really interesting question. I find that people in literature who often try so hard to avoid a prophecy from coming true often end up making the prophecy come true. For instance, in Harry Potter, Voldemort hears a prophecy that a boy born at the end of July with parents who defied him three times would end up defeating him. He gets understandably worried and goes to try and murder Harry as a baby. Fast forward to the seventh book and Voldemort does get defeated by Harry. But what if Voldemort didn’t pay any attention to the prophecy? Then Harry would have no reason to come after him and he might’ve achieved his goal of immortality! Another example would be Macbeth, who because of a prophecy, decides to murder King Duncan (I think that’s the king’s name, but it’s been two years so I could be wrong). These people all self-fulfill these prophecies; either through trying to avoid the prophecies, or by directly taking action to make the prophecies come true. Laius and Jocasta tried so hard to prevent Oedipus from growing up so he couldn’t kill his father and marry his mother as the prophecy predicted. This is exactly what happens, however. If Laius and Jocasta had simply ignored the prophecy, I doubt Oedipus would ever have thought of killing Laius or married Jocasta.

It’s an interesting topic; this talk about whether we control fate or whether fate controls us. Most people, when asked, will say that they believe we, as humans, control fate. Yet, when people are told that something will happen, they also have a tendency to believe it. It’s rather contradictory.

 

Another noteworthy question to ask is: Is Oedipus a monster? Taken out of context, Oedipus is someone who kills his father and marries his mother. Monstrous? Yes. But when you actually read the book, it’s hard to blame Oedipus. He didn’t know who his real biological parents were. His parents even tried to kill him! Also, even though his crimes are certainly monstrous, he is by no means unloving towards his family. He shows deep concern for his children and regrets the fact that he has to leave them. He elicits pity from the audience and readers alike. I personally found “Oedipus Rex” an entertaining read and I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to read this play in my English 12 class.

           


Plato’s “Republic” Round Two

After working my way through the first half of the book, I found that reading the second half wasn’t as bad. Maybe it was because by then I’d gotten used to the dialogue in the book and the way Socrates made his arguments. The “Republic” became less of a headache and I even found myself liking the book (but, I’ll admit, not always!).

One thing that really interested me in the book was how Socrates argued that painters and craftsmen were imitators. First of all, when we think of painters, I, at least, think of them as people who create art that is original and authentic, something that reflects emotions or inner beliefs. Socrates make them out to be people who lack originality and “produces work that is inferior with respect to the truth.” Even though I totally disagree with Socrates that painters are imitators (which can be a nicer word for plagiarism), I find his views interesting. First of all, he says that the work painters produce is inferior to the truth, but perhaps his view towards truth is too platonic. Why should there be only one truth as to what the truth is? Why shouldn’t a painter’s work reflect the truth too?

Another argument that Plato made that really held my interest was towards the very end, where Socrates was describing a situation where many people chose to become animals for their next life. Odysseus, in this situation, chooses to be a “private individual who did his own work” and “other souls changed from animals into human beings.” Having come from the Odyssey lecture where Caroline Williams emphasized the importance of Odysseus having made the choice to be human rather than a god, Plato is emphasizing the opposite. I feel Plato has a feeling of hatred for humans and what makes humans… human. I get the impression from him that he’s trying to tell us how flawed human life is, with all its pains and shortcomings that are a part of human existence, and that’s why he wants to make the argument that many people choose to become animals in their next life. Animals have a much simpler life, after all. Socrates also states a number of times how humans are at the mercy of their own appetites, forever in pursuit of something…

Plato also has a lot to say about politics. He says a number of times how democracy is monstrous and that, ideally, a state should have only a philosopher-King. I feel that Plato’s “philosopher-king” is perhaps the modern equivalent of a Senate. Plato compares democracy as a many headed monster who is never fully satisfied. On the other hand, his philosopher-king seems to know how best to rule. His philosopher-king isn’t pressured by the public to make certain decisions the way a democratic ruler would. This was another bit that lingered in my mind (and trust me, I forgot a large part of the book after finishing it!).

Reading Plato’s arguments were hard. I’m not sure what this proves about us as readers. Are we too narrow-minded to accept Plato’s arguments? Is that why they are so difficult to read and retain? Who exactly is monstrous, us or Plato?