Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: Preface to Plato

Preface to Plato by Eric Havelock 


My summer project of reading Ancient Greek Philosophy got off to a rough start when I stumbled through Plato’s Republic. Expecting an insightful, albeit idealistic political solution, I was sorely confused. Interspersed between polemics against Poetry and Homer, I found traces of a simplistic, totalitarian regime. Even the running of this regime was not elaborated upon, except in the branch of education.
After scouring the internet wildly for answers, I found two likely solutions to my quandary. The first, was the following review:…
The second was this book.
From what I understand, Havelock’s fundamental aim is to trace the transformation in the Greek Mind through Plato’s writing. The main premise is that Plato’s society was still largely illiterate, and thus Plato’s attack against Poetry is in fact an attack on a ‘pre-literate’ source of knowledge that is lacking in logical consistency and factual correctness, that we take for granted in our own encyclopaedias. Havelock is arguing that Ancient Greeks literally ‘believed’ in Poetry, and this is the rational for Plato’s attack. From this perspective, the state that is constructed in Plato’s Republic is simplistic because it is brought in only for the sake of the argument on Poetry. The details in education are given because of the role Poetry played in Ancient Greek education, and this is the aspect of Poetry that Plato is attacking.
Havelock makes a lot of other insightful points about vocabularly etc, half of which went over my head. Aside from the the Republic and Homer’s Odyssey, I haven’t read any of the other sources he quotes. Further I do not understand Greek. For these reasons, it’s possible that the evidence Havelock brings to support his claim is faulty. However, the construction of his hypotheses, whether they are validated by fact or not, is intriguing in itself. He really made me think, and question in a way I was not used to. For example this is how it starts:

“It sometimes happens in the history of the written word that an important work of literature carries a title which does not accurately reflect the contents. A part of the work has become identified with the whole, or the meaning of a label has shifted in translation. But if the label has a popular and recognisable ring, it can come to exercise a kind of thought control over those who take the book in their hands. They form an expectation which accords with the title but is belied by much of the substance of what the author has to say. They cling to a preconception of his intentions, insensibly allowing their minds to mould the content of what they read into the required shape.
These remarks apply with full force to that treatise of Plato’s styled the Republic. Were it not for the title, it might be read for what it is, rather than as an essay in utopian political theory. It is a fact that only about a third of the work concerns itself with statecraft as such. The text deals at length and often with a great variety of matters which bear on the human condition, but these are matters which would certainly have no place in a modem treatise on politics.”

Where have you been all my life? Not only is he answering my concern about the lack of political theory, he is making the seemingly obvious hypothesis that maybe it is not about political theory at all. The presentation of this hypothesis, however, disguises its sheer brilliance. Through all my confusion, I not once doubted that Plato aimed to write on political theory.

“So it is that the long sleep of man is interrupted and his self-consciousness, separating itself from the lazy play of the endless saga-series of events, begins to think and to be thought of, ‘itself of itself’, and as it thinks and is thought, man in his new inner isolation confronts the phenomenon of his own autonomous personality and accepts it.”

This comes at the end of the chapter in which he draws a link between the transformation from an oral to written culture, and how it results in a realization of self. Not sure if I buy it completely, however, it asks really interesting questions about the impact of our means of communication on our fundamental thinking. The way he describes the process of self-realization is equally fascinating.

“Yet the day would come when the original drive of the Platonic method would revive, and the phenomenal flux would once more be examined and penetrated and subordinated to categories of explanation which possess a wholly abstract integrity. And when this day came, science would awaken again.”

While this is slight less original, in that he seems to be merely documenting the return of ‘rationalism’. However, while few people claim to be Platonic idealists, the way we continue to describe our world in abstractions definitely has deeper parallels to Plato then I initially thought. Once again, his description of this historical process is in itself, thought-provoking.
Ultimately, Preface to Plato not only helped me understand Plato’s Republic better, as an exposition of hypotheses, it is commendable.

Book Review: Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment by Fydor Dostoevsky


While it is probably not the ideal novel for a school project, I do not regret reading it. I chose this novel because I read War and Peace over the summer and it was my first exposure to Russian authors. I enjoyed that novel immensely, and would have read another novel by Tolstoy if I hadn’t encountered this quote from Nietszche, “Dostoevsky,the only psychologist from whom I’ve anything to learn.” Nietszche was famous for the claim that “God is dead”, while the little I knew about Dosteovsky was that he was an avid Christian. This contradiction led me to read a novel by him, Crime and Punishment, as it was his most acclaimed.
The portions of the novel that I enjoyed the most were the one’s involving Luzhin or Pyotr Petrovich, the rather pompous fiancé of the protagonist’s sister, Dunya. The atmosphere of the book was very heavy at times and the mishaps of this character provided some sort of relief. There were many occasions in which he attempted to impress, outwit or trap Raskilinikov, only to be ripped to shreds by the main character’s sharp mind, acid tongue and furious temper. A good example of this is Raskilnikov’s late interjection into an argument about the recent death of a pawnbroker and the relevance of traditional morality between Pyotr Petrovich and Razumikhin, a student. Raskilnikov ridicules Pyotr Petrovich, and then accuses Luzhin of taking advantage of his sister. Luzhin is utterly lost.

“…if I were told ‘love thy neighbour,’ what came of it?” Pyotr Petrovitch went on… “It came to my tearing my coat in half to share with my neighbour and we both were left half naked… Science now tells us, love yourself before all men, for everything in the world rests on self-interest. You love yourself and manage your own affairs properly and your coat remains whole. Economic truth adds that the better private affairs are organised in society… better is the common welfare organised too… “ “…another circumstance interests me in the case…what strikes me as the strangest thing is that in the higher classes, too, crime is increasing proportionately. And if this old woman, the pawnbroker, has been murdered by some one of a higher class in society—for peasants don’t pawn gold trinkets—how are we to explain this demoralisation of the civilised part of our society?”
“What answer had your lecturer in Moscow to make to the question why he was forging notes? ‘Everybody is getting rich one way or another, so I want to make haste to get rich too.’”… [Replied the student]
“But morality? And so to speak, principles …”
“But why do you worry about it?” Raskolnikov interposed suddenly. “It’s in accordance with your theory!”
“In accordance with my theory?”
“Why, carry out logically the theory you were advocating just now, and it follows that people may be killed …”
“Upon my word!” cried Luzhin. Raskolnikov lay with a white face twitching upper lip, breathing painfully. “There’s a measure in all things,” Luzhin went on superciliously. “Economic ideas are not an incitement to murder, and one has but to suppose …”
“And it is true,” Raskolnikov interposed once more suddenly, again in a voice quivering with fury and delight in insulting him, “is it true that you told your fiancée … within an hour of her acceptance, that what pleased you most … was that she was a beggar … because it was better to raise a wife from poverty, so that you may have complete control over her, and reproach her with your being her benefactor?” “Upon my word,” Luzhin cried wrathfully and irritably, crimson with confusion…

Whenever the investigator Porfiry Petrovich interrogated the protagonist, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. Dostoevsky was able to create an incessant, prickly atmosphere in these scenes. I often felt as if I, and not Raskilnikov, were being toyed with. The possibility of him giving himself away, added to the anxiety. These scenes were also quite long, and it took patience, perseverance and maybe even resilience to plough through them. An acute example of this occurs when Rodya Raskilnikov is summoned to explain his relationship to the deceased woman. Idle details, circular discussions and Raskilnikov’s self-awareness combine to agonise the reader.

“I believe you said yesterday you would like to question me … formally … about my acquaintance with the murdered woman?” Raskolnikov was beginning again. “Why did I put in ‘I believe’” passed through his mind in a flash. “Why am I so uneasy at having put in that ‘I believe’?” came in a second flash. And he suddenly felt that his uneasiness at the mere contact with Porfiry, at the first words, at the first looks, had grown in an instant to monstrous proportions, and that this was fearfully dangerous. His nerves were quivering, his emotion was increasing. “It’s bad, it’s bad! I shall say too much again.”
“Yes,yes,yes! There’s no hurry, there’s no hurry,” muttered Porfiry Petrovitch, moving to and fro about the table without any apparent aim, as it were making dashes towards the window, the bureau and the table, at one moment avoiding Raskolnikovs’ suspicious glance, then again standing still and looking him straight in the face. His fat round little figure looked very strange, like a ball rolling from one side to the other and rebounding back.
“We’ve plenty of time. Do you smoke? have you your own? Here, a cigarette!” he went on, offering his visitor a cigarette. “You know I am receiving you here, but my own quarters are through there, you know, my government quarters. But I am living outside for the time, I had to have some repairs done here. It’s almost finished now.… Government quarters, you know, are a capital thing. Eh, what do you think?”
“Yes, a capital thing,” answered Raskolnikov, looking at him almost ironically.
“A capital thing, a capital thing,” repeated Porfiry Petrovitch, as though he had just thought of something quite different. “Yes, a capital thing,” he almost shouted at last, suddenly staring at Raskolnikov and stopping short two steps from him. This stupid repetition was too incongruous in its ineptitude with the serious, brooding and enigmatic glance he turned upon his visitor. But this stirred Raskolnikov’s spleen more than ever…

Dostoevsky’s ability to create complex, realistic characters is his greatest strength. Each character has an almost contradictory dual-nature. Luzhin is progressive yet elitist; Sonya, a prostitute, is hardened yet innocent; Svidrigailov, Dunya’s former employer is depraved yet generous; Dunya herself is assertive at times and submissive during others. Finally, Raskilnikov is cold-hearted yet pitiable. The most telling example is Svidrigailov, who is infamous for attempting to seduce Dunya while she was under his employment, despite being married and a great deal older. The duality is exhibited in the scenes when he attempts to blackmail Dunya and then gives away a great deal of wealth. Svidrigailov tells Dunya that Raskilnikov is on the verge of arrest, and that he is the only person who can ‘save’ him.

“You … one word from you, and he is saved. I … I’ll save him. I have money and friends. I’ll send him away at once. I’ll get a passport, two passports, one for him and one for me. I have friends … capable people.… If you like, I’ll take a passport for you … for your mother. … What do you want with Razumihin? I love you too … I love you beyond everything.… Let me kiss the hem of your dress, let me, let me.… The very rustle of it is too much for me. Tell me, ‘do that,’ and I’ll do it. I’ll do everything. I will do the impossible. What you believe, I will believe. I’ll do anything—anything! Don’t, don’t look at me like that. Do you know that you are killing me? …”
[Later, he visits Sonya]
“I may be going to America, Sofya Semyonovna,” said Svidrigaïlov, “and as I am probably seeing you for the last time, I have come to make some arrangements. Well, did you see the lady to-day? I know what she said to you, you need not tell me.” (Sonia made a movement and blushed.) “Those people have their own way of doing things. As to your sisters and your brother, they are really provided for and the money assigned to them I’ve put into safe keeping and have received acknowledgments. You had better take charge of the receipts, in case anything happens. Here, take them! Well, now that’s settled. Here are three 5 percent. bonds to the value of three thousand roubles. Take those for yourself, entirely for yourself, and let that be strictly between ourselves, so that no one knows of it, whatever you hear. You will need the money, for to go on living in the old way, Sofya Semyonovna, is bad, and besides there is no need for it now.”

While Svidrigailov is a minor character, the duality is clear and in high contrast. At one moment he is a lechy, creepy old man, the next moment he seems a considerate benefactor. Svidrigailov is under no obligation and gains little from this generosity. Svidrigailov was at most an acquantice of the impoverished Sofya Semyonovna. However, the reader is not disbelieving, since this gesture is within the spontaneous, generous character of Svidrigailov. Svidrigailov, old yet childish, matures after this confrontation with Dunya. This duality allows Dostoevsky to surpass conventional narratives of not only ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but also complex yet static characters. Dostoevsky’s characters are always in transformation, and that is really what provides them authenticity.
It is difficult for an amateur writer like myself to comment on the weakness of an iconic author like Dostoevsky. However, in my opinion the negativity of the book would probably be its greatest weakness. The numb, drilling thoughts of Raskilnikov are explored for pages on end. Furthermore, each scene is experienced through his eyes, making even a party scene frustrating and agonizing. Possibly the most depressing image is the childhood flashback of a horse being beaten to death.

He ran beside the mare, ran in front of her, saw her being whipped across the eyes, right in the eyes! He was crying, he felt choking, his tears were streaming. One of the men gave him a cut with the whip across the face, he did not feel it. Wringing his hands and screaming, he rushed up to the grey-headed old man with the grey beard, who was shaking his head in disapproval. One woman seized him by the hand and would have taken him away, but he tore himself from her and ran back to the mare. She was almost at the last gasp, but began kicking once more.
“I’ll teach you to kick,” Mikolka shouted ferociously. He threw down the whip, bent forward and picked up from the bottom of the cart a long, thick shaft, he took hold of one end with both hands and with an effort brandished it over the mare.

“It’s my property,” shouted Mikolka and brought the shaft down with a swinging blow. There was a sound of a heavy thud.
“Thrash her, thrash her! Why have you stopped?” shouted voices in the crowd.
And Mikolka swung the shaft a second time and it fell a second time on the spine of the luckless mare. She sank back on her haunches, but lurched forward and tugged forward with all her force, tugged first on one side and then on the other, trying to move the cart. But the six whips were attacking her in all directions, and the shaft was raised again and fell upon her a third time, then a fourth, with heavy measured blows. Mikolka was in a fury that he could not kill her at one blow.

“She’ll fall in a minute, mates, there will soon be an end of her,” said an admiring spectator in the crowd.
“Fetch an axe to her! Finish her off,” shouted a third.
“I’ll show you! Stand off,” Mikolka screamed frantically; he threw down the shaft, stooped down in the cart and picked up an iron crowbar. “Look out,” he shouted, and with all his might he dealt a stunning blow at the poor mare. The blow fell; the mare staggered, sank back, tried to pull, but the bar fell again with a swinging blow on her back and she fell on the ground like a log.

No doubt this image is effective. It brings to light the pointless cruelty that often forms part of human-nature, while foreshadowing Raskilnikov’s own thoughtless homicide. However, the sheer helplessness of the horse in this scene, which happens to occur towards the start of novel, can put the most perseverant reader off. It may be possible to highlight these same issues with less negativity, however, perhaps it is Dostoevsky’s intention to force the reader into an uncomfortable reflection.
Crime and Punishment, being a classic, intends to provide some sort of insight into life. A more literal examination of the book would lead the reader to draw parallels with the Crime and Punishment in Western liberal democracies, USA being the best example of this. The United States accounts for 5% of the world population, yet 25% of the world’s prisoners, leading the world in gross prison population. Yet, every year, one out of five Americans are victims of crime, amongst the highest in the world. Dostoevsky’s insight in prisons role in criminalizing people, is relevant, and seems to be backed up by the statistics. However, it is the contrasting, dual traits of characters that provided the deepest insight for me. The realization that people are characters in transformation is not only interesting, but has practical application for any member of society. While it may help one to be empathetic towards others, it also encourages one to transform and surpass oneself. Possibly akin to Nietszche’s ‘Superman’ philosophy, which may account for his praise of Dostoevsky.
This book is not very entertaining. Except for Luzhin, few moments offer comic relief. However, the heavy, toxic atmosphere forces the reader along a path of uncomfortable reflection. The reader is made to face unhappy truths about human nature, irrationality and cruelty. In addition, the reader sees the world he knows painted in the dull, depraved shades that color Raskilnikov’s mind. Seeing the world through this lens, along with the transforming characters that the reader is introduced to, encourages the reader to change his outlook on life. While one is not meant to adopt Raskilnikov’s negative view, one must just acknowledge that these views exist and are valid. Thus, the real value of this book lies in this uncomfortable reflection that might result in a change in perspective.
While I can’t say I enjoyed this book, reading it was probably one of the most important things I did this year. While it was unable to permanantly mar my optimism about life, it has added a certain amount of caution to my thoughts and actions. Along with A Brave New World, this book led me to write my latest piece in the Hawks Eye Newspaper, easily the most pessimistic piece of writing I have ever written. In fact, this novel caused me to fling away my usual enthusiasm for school, and replace it with a listless attitude that was probably not very beneficial for my Grad year! While diction used ia rather simple, the complexity of the mainly gloomy situations, emotions and dialogues makes the novel surprisingly challenging to read. On the other hand, for the characterization alone, this book is a worthwile read. Nietschze’s praise may not have been that off the mark, after all.