Exhibition: “Bouquets,” French Still-Life Painting from Chardin to Matisse

“Bouquets” runs from October 26, 2014 to February 8, 2015 at the Dallas Museum of Art.

1. That morning, the job interview did not happen. I was misled, to say the least.

I walked to Starbucks. While there, I tried to read. To my credit, there was poetry. There was history. There was also the loud self-praise – I’m sorry, “conversation” – a nearby douchebag directed at a lawyer. D-bag was a graduate of a very fine school, afterwards serving in the military in a leadership role. “Oozing charm from every pore, he oiled his way across the floor:” sure, you love Bogart movies, especially when you’re talking to an older, established gentleman who dresses like he’s from The Maltese Falcon. Sure, you love the South, especially when talking to someone who’s lived here his whole life. Etc.

I thought my stop at the Dallas Museum of Art would be brief. I did want to spend a day downtown, I didn’t want to waste being dressed up on my day off. But I imagined I’d be outdoors more, walking to various cafes, sampling food and coffee, burning through money I don’t have.

Bouquets was $8 admission. You’d think that since I’m reading a book on Van Gogh, that alone would prompt me to go see his work. Truth is, as soon as the attendant at the museum said they had floral still life on display, I paid. I know nothing about still life: Why would artists ever feel the need to paint a bunch of flowers?

It’s almost a ridiculous question. To try and answer it is to enter an entirely different world. To talk about memento mori paintings or the symbolism various flowers have is to scratch the surface. The use of symbols, or even confronting death, does not make sense without trying to imagine the mind housing such concerns.

2. An ancient painter is said to have depicted grapes so lifelike that birds couldn’t help but peck at them. One might be dismissive of such artistry, finding it more of an attempt to grasp power rather than meaning. In such a vein, you could look at Gerard van Spaendonck’s “Basket of Flowers on an Alabaster Pedestal” (1785) as decadent. The flowers are so varied, of so many colors, lines, and textures, that it is quite a feat he keeps every form meticulously distinct. All around, birds, butterflies, and insects try to make a home of the display. They can’t. On the pedestal itself, a relief where someone seems to be placing a bouquet to honor something divine. There may be more to the story – a Cupid and Psyche reference? – but I wonder if the theme could be how inadequate our attempts to be stewards of nature are. Our artifice is beautiful, whether well-wrought containers or well-placed flowers. The painting seems to know it is more style than substance.

Adele Riche’s “Flowers with Green and Red Grapes” (1831) I think far smarter. The prominence of the backs of the flower heads, the leaves not just marginalized for the bloom. My eye felt drawn to the fruit, as if it were entirely continuous with the large, vivid blossoms. The fruit reveals itself to be very much a flowering.

There are painters utterly in love with their technique, painters who skillfully use artifice, and virtuosi who maybe understand too deeply how their techniques work. Baudelaire, I learned in the exhibit, was utterly dismissive of a school of painting from Lyon. He called it the “penitentiary of painting – that part of the known world where they manage the infinitely small details best.” To that end, consider Antoine Berjon’s “Fruit and Flowers in a Wicker Basket” (1810). He groups what he paints so as to both enhance the image and reveal his ability to manipulate our eyes. The coarse leaves are next to coarser gourds; lustrous white wicker stands near a lustrous pinecone, while various grapes display different colors but a similar sheen. Flowers in the basket, again, are organized by color, sometimes forming lines of pinks and whites, other times fields of blue and purple, orange and peach.

Berjon does not show any subtlety about the surfaces of things. Indeed, I think he unwittingly made a comment about philosophy. All the surfaces prod one to ask what is inside. The wicker basket is both open and closed. In either case, it is filled with stems. That might be Berjon’s answer to what we get in life beyond images: only groupings of them. I can’t say he’s wrong. I can say, in this case, there’s a cynicism at work Baudelaire was right to deride.

3. Delacroix’s “Still Life with Dahlias” (1833) is one of the unsung gems of this exhibition, but perfectly placed. After seeing so many paintings too carefully planned, too well-made, one witnesses an organic unity that impresses the eye, compels a movement.

Degas’ “Portrait of Estelle Musson Degas” (1872)
also has an unfinished feel to it. There is considerable debate about whether it was simply left undone or meant to be completed later. It’s hard to describe its power. Her features emerge from the blocky, half-painted canvas. Their emergence coincides with her action of putting the bouquet together. The flowers themselves look a lot less defined than her face and hands, but I think they’re more defined by their color, their vibrance. Their form not so important as what they are.

Manet’s “Flowers in a Crystal Vase” (1882) must be seen to be believed. From a room away, the impression is of real flowers in a crystal vase. Up close, he’s used so few brushstrokes that the nearly bare canvas constitutes part of the crystal. The painting is one of his last, and one wonders about the scope of a vision where mastery of technique serves to make us think it purely a function of the mind’s eye.

Similarly, the Van Gogh paintings are a pilgrimage unto themselves. He does not waste a millimeter of canvas. I have plenty of notes in my journal about them. There will be many more. I don’t know that I’m going to be teaching any time soon. I do know what I will be doing in the meantime.

Kay Ryan, “Thin”

Thin (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

How anything
is known
is so thin —
a skin of ice
over a pond
only birds might
confidently walk
upon. A bird’s
worth of weight
or one bird-weight
of Wordsworth.


Control breath, focus. Only time to get more oxygen, avoid a blow, respond with training when possible. A professional fighter knows he knows when he can act properly. Indeed, for one educated so, it might be said that he can act at all is entirely a matter of knowledge. The method taught, the body molded, the assumed scenarios: maybe sports are so unintellectual at times because the thinking has already been done.

“How anything is known is so thin” – when discussing this with S., she talked about the unfathomable. Her initial read of the poem: birds which walk upon the ice also reach into a sky we can never truly know. Ice covers a watery depth also not home for us. Knowing, in a way, always stands beyond us. If you know how you know, you are incredibly wise. If you know how you know how you know, you’re insane or nearly god.

S.’s is a brilliant and correct thought. I do think the poem leans another direction. To know is to engage a thinness like “a skin of ice over a pond only birds might confidently walk upon.” The image isn’t exactly clear. Maybe those birds look fearless, or at least nonchalant. I tend to think of birds upon the ground as having abbreviated, mechanical motions. That if people moved like they did, they would look nervous. In any case, there is no confidence shown by us humans upon the ice. The problem is that our knowledge does not directly inform our experience. We doubt our knowing, we doubt ourselves; we’re in the way of our confidently, prudently acting.

There are attempts to deny the problem. If you really knew, you would do it and do it well. Sorry, but you can know how to dismantle a nuclear bomb and someone can shoot you in the face while you’re trying to do it. A failure of result does not indicate a failure to know. Self-actualization involves a denial of the self; the self is the obstacle to true knowledge. This misunderstands priority. How we come to know is a subject worthy of discussion. Genuine communication is not a pseudoscience.

The last sentence of the poem indicates acceptance of the problem. “A bird’s worth of weight or one bird-weight of Wordsworth.” You could say the birds do fine on the ice because they tread so lightly. If we use knowledge in the most refined, elegant ways, maybe we will avoid undermining ourselves. Ryan’s speaker refuses to go this direction, as she does not posit a know-how in order to properly use each thing known. “A bird’s worth of weight” is an impossibility for us. We carry more, much more. What we need is “one bird-weight of Wordsworth.” The best words are light and carried with us. They enable us to grasp images better, but perhaps not reality. Not know-how, but why exactly we wanted to know in the first place.

Herodotus, “The History” I.163-169: The Story of the Phocaeans

Having put down a rebellion, Cyrus split his forces in order to take that much more beyond his empire. Harpagus was appointed general of one part of the army, and he warred against the Ionians. He alone conquered many cities, Cyrus conquering many more, but Herodotus spends quite a bit of time talking about the first conquest in Ionia, a city named Phocaea. The story which follows is peculiar, to say the least.


The Phocaeans were daring seafarers, going on long voyages to the ends of the Mediterranean. They found a king in a distant land who so valued their friendship that he offered to settle them anywhere in his kingdom. When they were worried about the Medes, this same king gave them all the money they needed to build immense and powerful fortifications.

When Persia invaded, the Phocaeans bought time to flee their city through a negotiation of sorts. Harpagus said that if they tore down just one part of the wall and consecrated a house, he would be content. The Phocaeans said they needed a day to think about this, in which time they put their children, women, and as many goods as they could carry to sea, including some images from the temples and sacrificial items. They sailed south, trying to buy some islands for settlement from another people, but were rebuffed.

They then decided to sail to Corsica, where before they had built a city on account of an oracle. Before they did this, they went back to Phocaea, murdered the Persians left guarding it, and sunk in the sea a bar of iron to pronounce a curse. No Phocaean was to linger behind on the relocation to Corsica, and only unless the bar surfaced would any Phocaean come back there. Despite this, half the citizens did sail back on the journey to Corsica, “seized with such homesickness and pity for their city,” breaking the oath they made (1.165).


If you’re wondering what we’re supposed to think of the Phocaeans after all that, join the club. The story only gets crazier. Those who sailed to Corsica did make it, joining with those who had founded the city before, setting up their shrines again. However, they decided to act like pirates and bandits toward the neighbors with their newfound strength. This brought the Etruscans and Carthaginians into common cause against them. They met in a naval battle, with the Phocaeans at least as strong as both the others combined. Technically, the Phocaeans won, but they had so many unusable ships after the battle that they had to flee their settlement in Corsica in the same way they fled Phocaea originally. They eventually settled in another country, founding a city with another name, twice removed from Phocaea. The city after Phocaea was Alalia, the city after that Hyele.

Herodotus adds that after the naval battle, the Carthaginians and Etruscans cast lots for the abandoned crews of wrecked Phocaean ships. The people of Agylla won many crews. Apparently, they were furious at the Phocaeans, or were just awful excuses for human beings, as they brought them ashore to stone them to death. This resulted in a curse:

After this, among these Agyllaeans, every living thing that passed the place where the Phocaeans were stoned and buried – every living thing, be it flocks and herds or beasts of burden or men – became alike twisted, crippled, or paralyzed. The people of Agylla sent to Delphi, wishful to heal their offense. The Pythia laid upon them the command that the Agyllaeans are still discharging to this day. For they have splendid religious celebrations for the dead Phocaeans and in their honor hold athletic contests and horse races. (1.167)

The curse of the place where the massacre occurred affected the beauty and motion of those who passed it. Hence, athletic spectacles in honor of the victims are an appropriate remedy. There is another detail of importance with which Herodotus ends this story. The Phocaeans eventually reinterpret the oracle that sent them to Corsica, as a local hero near their newest city had a name equivalent to Corsica.


I wonder what this whole story means. Herodotus says the Phocaeans were the first of the Greeks to go on long sea voyages. He mentions that they use a specific sort of boat. One could speculate that technology caused them to be as daring as they were.

One might wonder about piety, too. The Phocaeans heeded an oracle that told them to go forth and settle, to do something they would do anyway. They do not fight to the death for their ancestral homeland, nor do they take special pains to relocate or hide the weightiest images in the temples.

For me right now, the Phocaeans are this consideration: What if a people were entirely heroic? They would be awesome friends. Kings would willingly want them at their court, to learn from them and bask in their natural glory. They would be adventurous, using even misfortune as an opportunity to do more and see more. They would be secure and conflicted in their identity. To insist on the absurdity of being more Phocaean for leaving Phocaea itself is the sort of thing characteristic of any given hero. And they are celebrated in funeral games, just like other figures in epic.

Joe Connole beautifully expanded on this thought, adding that it looks like they turn barbarian quickly, asserting themselves a bit too naturally. And their identity, the very thing they insisted upon so much initially, is lost because of their own actions. One might be tempted to say the city doesn’t need heroes. It needs strong formal institutions and a willingness to slowly and steadily progress. That does seem to be a hidden theme of a more thoughtful approach to our democratic age, as our heroes dunk basketballs, win American Idol, and once in a while discover something amazing (which they get money and fame from. Never forget the cash and interviews, otherwise you wouldn’t know how heroic they were).

But maybe the foundations of the city are a deeper problem. Maybe it is the case that political life depends on heroes, even asking us to become them. In which case, we are always in danger of transcending the city itself, losing our sense of justice because we need to feel powerful and free. Some commentators think that power simply corrupts, for if you have power, you’re always tempted to do something bad with it. To be frank, that’s pretty idiotic. It’s more like this: morality is clearest when you don’t have power. When you do have it, moral choices become a lot more difficult. Sometimes, such choices are directly dependent on whether you can effect or provide something. You’re stuck playing god, like it or not; people depend on you and weigh you with their expectations.

To be sure, the Phocaeans eventually settle down, both in spite of their heroism and because of it. They were right to flee in their crazy, bold, adventurous way. And it was inevitable that they would act unjustly and almost imperially for a time, worried that without power, they would be powerless against those who would take their home away.


Herodotus, The History. tr. David Greene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.


I heard something by someone I am supposed to disagree with. Therefore I will spend a bunch of time figuring out how to disagree with it, elaborately constructing responses that confirm my own biases. I will use a lot of complicated words and drop a lot of names to sound smart. I’ll use Facebook to quote scholars known for particularly dense prose out of context. That way I can seem well-read and eager to hear new ideas, while working to create the most pretentious and pointless comment thread in existence. At no time will I risk looking stupid, because that would expose what a generous, passionate, thoughtful human being I actually am.

– Blessed be the incoherent, who struggle to be honest and articulate.

Kay Ryan, “Backward Miracle”

Backward Miracle (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

Every once in a while
we need a
backward miracle
that will strip language,
make it hold for
a minute: just the
vessel with the
wine in it –
a sacramental
refusal to multiply,
reclaiming the
single loaf
and the single
fish thereby.


Once, after a particularly bad day, this poem made perfect sense. Put down on account of few or no wrongs, saw no escape from present miseries, thought how things could get worse, as is always possible. No reason to complain, every right to do so.

What I needed was a “backward miracle.” This sort of miracle strips language, taking something away so language itself can “hold for a minute.” That means “just the vessel with the wine in it,” which on a lighter note might be thought a glass of Sauvignon Blanc after work.

Ryan does not quite justify our going that direction, though. The vessel with the wine in it occurs because of “a sacramental refusal to multiply.” I am not going to multiply my pains, but I am also not going to ask for the world to be remade. The vessel and the wine refuse transformation, and I stand apart from both with my sacramental refusal.

Not transformed, there is instead the choice to ingest the wine. Moreover, the reality of what is in front asserts itself: a “single loaf” and a “single fish” have been reclaimed. What prevented us from seeing what actually is, well, is our hope for miracles. We load reality with our expectations. Our ambitions and our sense of justice, our very dignity, depend on our expectations. Many times, we could use events that are in effect miracles to meet them. Some of us are more fortunate than others and can take these events for granted. Others are thankful for a parking space near their job’s entrance so they don’t have to dash out of the car.

To strip language of our expectations is to rediscover the power of the everyday. We don’t have much, but what we do have can sustain, and we might even do something more. In terms of really bad days, note well: everyone is loading us with their ridiculous expectations. Why do we have to play along, when we simply know better?

Emily Rosko, “Aubade”

Aubade (from Poetry)
Emily Rosko

There’s loneliness and there’s this—
an unfrequented song, a startling voice
across years. A shifting position, hymn
from the hard bench, sharp something in
there, glass-glinted. If the movement
of trees in the weather front were enough.
If the notes were off-pitch but piercing
(which they are) as birdcall across
the stirring hour. In the woods,
a rustling of creatures we have no
idea of. Outcrops of limestone, wet leaves
lush and deadly. There’s a time for killing,
some tell us, in the corner
of the who-knows-whereabouts. Everywhere,
the roadside lilies in thick morning
dew open orange and in numbers, one
after the other. Sun so strange it’s as
though our looking, for a time, is first.


There’s loneliness, and then there’s being together, whatever that is. An aubade is a love song, sung in the morning. This one seems to concern the essence of being together. It is “unfrequented,” as everyday life is an occupation all its own. It possesses a “startling voice,” one which hearkens to an initial romance and the reality expectations meet.

Rosko’s imagery unpacks what startles, the darkness and beauty of a life together. What drew me to write on this poem was its ability to speak of what is nearly unspeakable so gently. To illustrate: we start with the wedding at the church, the porch in front of the house (“hymn from the hard bench”). In both cases, there’s a slight discomfort, a tune throughout, a beautiful but sharp spark. We glance trees moving to that tune, too, but what do they communicate? There are notes, but they feel alien. If they were piercing enough, they might stir us instinctually.

None of these ideas suggest we are dealing with a broken relationship where no one understands the other and anger resides in every look or syllable. What’s discomforting and wondrous is that the tune isn’t known. You don’t know everything about your partner, you don’t know how things will turn out. No less than Dickinson sees that as amazing. Lest I wax romantic about this, I should note some couples have seen their love turn to hate. Some people are toxic and can whittle away at anyone’s sanity. Being together can be an awful, cruel trap.

Again, Rosko’s musing hints at this, how ugliness does not constitute an insignificant part of love. Those closest to us do drive us crazy. Just dig a bit more into that fragmented, haunting, sharp melody the woods whistle. What’s in there?

In the woods,
a rustling of creatures we have no
idea of. Outcrops of limestone, wet leaves
lush and deadly. There’s a time for killing,
some tell us, in the corner
of the who-knows-whereabouts.

In the woods, we find home again – the homes of creatures to whom we’ve been blind. It is easy to slip out there, in here. Everything we’ve built a life around is deadly. And maybe we’ve even killed and don’t want to remember it.

Again, I don’t think the poem is talking about a couple inspiring Memento 2. But it is true some people are in years of therapy because of people they love who love them. Our lives together center around elaborate rituals whose importance we’re not even aware of. Sometimes, the fight over the dishes is just silly. Sometimes, it harbors the anger of one who feels they’re doing everything and are being exploited. It is easy to slip. It is easy to do things one should regret.

Yet, in large part, we don’t do those things, even though we are in a position to hurt worst those we love most. Some of our most egregious and unforgivable wrongs do find forgiveness, if only for utility’s sake. This is a love poem, and it manages to end appropriately, if ambiguously. We moved from the porch to the woods, now I imagine we’re circling back to the path. All along it, these lovely orange lilies, bunched together. A strange sun above, looking at us, that together we look back and marvel at.

Three Stories from Herodotus, “The History,” Book 1

Once again I have put together a piece of writing that sounds like a really ambitious 8th grader trying to have heady thoughts while distracted watching a League of Legends tournament. Below, you will find an attempt to grapple with why Herodotus puts the stories he tells in the order he does. I have done my best to reproduce those stories so you can make your own decisions, but I have added a heavy amount of commentary and editorializing because I’m trying to discover what I myself think. I do not think badly of the end result, clunky though it may be, because whoa that was an awesome combo to finish player Dr3dEnD0ll


Herodotus almost allows us to think Croesus, king of Lydia, a harmless fool. His haughty attitude in trying to be declared the happiest of all men indicates a tyrannical disposition, as his wealth and empire are simply so glorious. Attempts to test oracles and bribe the gods also fall under this category. Still, it is hard to see what he truly is. One has to remember why Herodotus brought him up in the first place. It seems to be said almost in passing that Croesus “was the first of the barbarians of whom we know who subdued some Greeks to the payment of tribute…. before Croesus’ rule all the Greeks were free” (1.6). That Croesus was the first to enslave Greeks is mentioned some 20 sections before his story begins in earnest. And a notable detail about how Croesus treated threats to his rule stands nearly an afterthought as Herodotus finishes his main narrative about him. A half-brother of his led a faction against him when he was to ascend the throne. For this, Croesus tortured him to death, “drawing him across a carding comb” (1.92). (1)

We do not hear much about the people building Lydia’s empire. For 14 years, Lydia is extremely formidable, poised to become even more powerful. We mostly hear of Croesus and Solon, Croesus and oracles, Croesus and Cyrus. He bumbles, stumbles, and finally is finished. The temptation is to think everyone around Lydia left and the Lydians occupied their territory, somehow also growing their numbers faster than humanly possible.

When Herodotus does speak about the Lydians, they are about to be destroyed. “There was at the time no people in all Asia who were braver or more valiant soldiers than the Lydians. Their fighting was from horseback, where they carried great lances, and they were themselves excellent horsemen” (1.79). This detail is given to us right before Cyrus finishes them. Cyrus, knowing horses are scared of the sight and smell of camels, used the train of camels he had transporting his provisions against the cavalry. Even though the cavalrymen should have completely broken, they joined the fight as best they could:

Indeed, as soon as the battle was joined, the very moment the horses smelled the camels and saw them, they bolted back; and down went all the hopes for Croesus. Not that, for the rest, the Lydians proved cowards; for as soon as they saw how it was, they jumped down from their horses and joined battle with the Persians on foot. (1.80)

The Lydians are routed, despite keeping discipline in the worst circumstance. They do not seem to be of the same cloth as Croesus. They are imperial, but not decadent; while tyrants over other peoples, they do exercise some virtue. They are not criminals looking to save their own skin, nor so desperate they rashly commit suicide.

Indeed, I hold this their silent rallying cry:  give me liberty, or give me death. Croesus’ puffery masks a story about how we value freedom. The experience of freedom as something good is how we know it to be good. Unfortunately, this almost always means injustice toward others. Someone else’s labor creates the conditions for our freedom. The Lydians are not shy about freedom entailing empire, and therefore fight not to be slaves of another.


The next ruler Herodotus speaks of at length is Deioces (1.96-101). Deioces was a Mede, a “clever man” who “had fallen in love with royal power.”  Grene’s translation of “royal power” isn’t quite correct; Benardete points out what he had as eros for tyrannidos (Benardete 24-25). The Medes at this time were quite a lawless people. Deioces thus “set himself to practice justice ever more and more keenly.” His village noticed and appointed him judge over them. People began flocking to him in greater and greater numbers, as he was judging “according to the rule of right” (1.96). When he realized how dependent everyone was on him, he refused to serve any longer, as he received no profit and his own affairs were neglected. Lawlessness grew more rampant in Media than before (1.97). The Medes met, agreeing with Deioces’ friends that they should set up a kingship, and Deioces should be king.

Deioces’ first demand was for kingly houses across the country and a bodyguard. These demands were met, enabling him to get more. A fortress upon a hill, with seven walls arranged in concentric circles. Complete privacy for the king except for messengers, shame upon anyone who laughed or spit in the royal presence. Spies and eavesdroppers everywhere, as people wrote their complaints about each other to Deioces, and he would send his decisions out. His justice was exact, and he seems to have united the Median nation (1.101).

Deioces, in effect, made himself a god. Invisible to his friends, those like him who might be as just and able. Invisible to all his people, who of necessity had to be in awe of him. The description of his fortress mirrors what was known about the cosmos at the time – seven walls for seven planets, except with himself at the center (Benardete 25). Benardete comments that what Deioces represents is the unjust basis of justice. Hence, the identification of justice and tyranny. Deioces could do whatever he liked behind those walls.

Benardete is right, but my concern centers on what Deioces achieved. In effect, he made an immoral people moral. We’re not looking at the mere establishment of law and security, as much as a recognition of necessity turned into morality itself. Deioces put himself in a perfect position to be thought a god after his death.


Herodotus’ cynicism about freedom and morality does not only disabuse us of more conventional opinions. He is openly wondering about how we create a world based on the experience of what is good for us. Both the Lydians and Medes embraced empire and tyranny because it resulted in goods for them, goods no less than freedom and justice. The worst abuses can come from the best intentions.

What about a more natural justice? Something more respectful of humanity as a whole? A later ruler of the Medes, Astyages, is warned through dreams and visions that a grandson of his will displace him (1.107). He orders his chief of staff, Harpagus, to kill the child; the chief of staff passes the duty to a shepherd, who through coincidence and contrivance is able to keep the child and raise him as his own. That child, Cyrus, does overthrow Astyages, but not before being discovered. As a result, well before his overthrow, Astyages has Harpagus’ son killed, dismembered, and fed to his own father.

Astyages is thoroughly despicable and disgusting. The Medes are united in their hatred toward him. Under the chief of staff’s plotting, they use Cyrus in Persia, the Persians being subject to the Medes, to effect a revolt and get rid of Astyages. The Medes are united in justice because of the gross injustice and tyranny of their king. They do not fight Cyrus’ Persian invasion for the most part, instead siding with it, capturing Astyages quickly (though Astyages finds what little time he has left ruling convenient for killing all his diviners).

The former chief of staff, Harpagus, confronts his old boss after all this, mocking him for becoming a slave. Astyages responds that Harpagus is the “stupidest and most unjust man alive:”

…stupidest, because you might have become king yourself, if the present circumstances are really of your making, and instead you turned over the power to someone else; most unjust if, because of that feast [where the son was eaten], you have made slaves of the Medes. If you had to confer the royal power on someone else rather than keep it to yourself, it would have been juster to grant that good to some Mede and not to a Persian. As it stands, the Medes, who were not guilty in your regard, have become slaves instead of masters, and the Persians, who were slaves, have become masters of the Medes.” (1.129)

Astyages is correct. From that point on, the Medes are subject to the Persians. Harpagus might have had power himself, or given it to a Mede, but instead he empowered Cyrus and the Persians. Moreover, the search for justice costs more than can be accounted for. The Medes as a whole pay for the wrong done to the chief of staff. Yet, being almost exactly right about these matters does not make Astyages wise, just, worthy to be a ruler, or remotely human.

Astyages indirectly explains the incentives that created the situation. The Medes, in order to maintain their preeminence, could not afford to turn on their own. To attack the king would be to divide the kingdom and invite their subjects to revolt.  They ruled the Persians, Assyrians, and a number of other Asian peoples (1.102-106). Their imperial power has not only been unjust, but founded on a false confidence. One might say Astyages’ brutality is only the honest expression of a subconscious fear, one coming from their very successes.

Still, I think it safer to say that the Medians acted justly in overthrowing Astyages. In certain ways, they acted prudently, as the plot was accomplished with a minimum of bloodshed. The problem of the Medes keeping their freedom is bigger than any just or unjust action they take, even bigger than the fact they had an empire. The Medes, in understanding how grossly unjust Astyages was, acted on a presumption of what is naturally just. No one except the craziest would call them incorrect, but the reasoning underlying one’s claims to justice can and do blind one to men being the worst of animals, even when one recognizes exactly that as the problem. A thread unites all three of the above stories, setting the stage for the rise of Persia in Herodotus’ narrative. Our political ideals are greater than us, and bestow upon us certain goods, experiences that make life worth living. Those same ideals test us, though, seeing how good we are. In the last analysis, we will be found wanting. “For of those [cities] that were great in earlier times most have now become small, and those that were great in my time were small in the time before.” (1.5)


1. Croesus, as later advisor to Cyrus, saves the Lydians from being completely destroyed in his wrath. Croesus is a murderous scumbag, but still somewhat human. I think the point of Herodotus telling us this story is to highlight how brutal and wanton Cyrus was.


Benardete, Seth. Herodotean Inquries. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999.

Herodotus, The History. tr. David Greene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Some Thoughts on the State of Political Philosophy Today

What does death ask of us?
I must change whatever it was I was
when the old man was alive.

Suji Kwock Kim, after Ko Un

At least when I read the classics, this sort of concern seems unknown. In its stead are stories about desire and knowledge, nobility and tyranny, form and function. Personal drama, exemplified in Greek tragedy, does not merely mirror the political, it is politics. I’m almost tempted to say that the difference between political philosophy and poetry as we know it is that more personal concerns are purposefully excluded in the former. Some nowadays would say our treatment of topics that touch us directly, such as suicide and depression, would be beneath a writer like Plutarch or Cicero. They are careful to keep this under their breath.

Could they be correct? There are less technical and more technical explanations. An example of one less technical: ancient audiences, at times, consisted of an ambitious elite. For example, the ones who could blow money on sophists or teachers of rhetoric, or go to plays or ride horses. Someone writing the stuff I’m reading – Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Herodotus, Thucydides – has to tell stories more or less about prominent people or lives well-led. He has to indulge the affirmative. Xenophon says “it is noble, as well as just and pious, and more pleasant, to remember the good things rather than the bad ones” (Anabasis 5.26). That statement is in the mouth of a character who is no less than Xenophon himself, defending himself before his men. It is an open invitation to wonder about what he does not tell us in his writing. As far as I’m concerned, the immediately personal is very much at stake. Socrates’ domestic life and attempted love affairs are more important than the fate of empires. This can be seen by comparing the first sentence of the Memorabilia with the Cyropaedia – there are the things Xenophon often wondered about, and the things he considered only once. But one might have to be a crafty, suspicious reader in order to find points of correspondence between our concerns and the past.

A more technical explanation goes something like this. Ancient thinkers wondered about the soul, the cause of motion on the one hand and rationality on the other. The soul, though, lends itself not just to scientific concern – in what sense are plants, animals, and humans all living? – but to political concerns. Law is the wishing to be the discovery of what is, as it makes claims on human being and how we think. The right laws lead to a virtuous, well-ordered, happy life. Laws complete the human species by shaping the soul. As time went on, the soul dropped out as a theme of philosophic inquiry. It was replaced by the self, which is a narrower, more subjective, and decidedly less political subject.

That the soul is a more comprehensive theme leads to a trap for those teaching classically related material. It tempts one to dismiss the self as a mere symptom of how we approach problems, as if one could turn back the clock to the 13th century or whatever and find manly men doing God’s work of obliterating heathens and debating the best regime and enslaving women, minorities, the people next door, etc. Men full of soul and virtue had no qualms about what was natural to them and just for others.

Still, it’s tough to prove that classical concerns have an overlap with our modern concerns that matters. Even if we’re talking about the same ideas, they tend to go different directions in the literature. I don’t want to prove that the classics want to talk about suicide, depression, how to deal with overbearing family or broken relationships. What I do want to show is that such themes are more continuous with the inquiry into what is humanity, what is civilization and barbarism, what is rule and knowledge, than we have been led to believe. The recovery of the past and its strikingly bold and different ideas, unfortunately, has been done with little or no self-awareness. We have become professors of a creed we do not understand. It is useless to many of our students and dangerous for some of the most talented.

Obviously, such a task is beyond the scope of this post. Perhaps light can be shed on one of the central problems, though. It has become fashionable in some circles to depict Socrates as a hedonist. As the most “natural” human type, this makes sense in a way. He has a lust for knowledge and a lust for the beautiful: he is driven to young men and then driven to ask them bothersome questions, keeping all but the most ambitious away (i.e. Charmides, Alcibiades, Plato). Whatever Socrates wants is good for him, as he will never do anything without some sort of benefit. This sort of reading means that the death of Socrates is not tragic, not in the least. I should say it is useful to purge ourselves of some of our most moralistic tendencies before we consider what philosophy is and what it is good for. Philosophy is quite a radical endeavor, to say the least, and it presents challenges that make us uneasy.

However, there is such a thing as being too reductive. If wisdom is moderation, and the love of wisdom some kind of madness, then we know Socrates to be certainly mad while being even more sure of his moderation. The appearance of not being a hedonist, the continence on display in matters of food, drink, clothing, wealth, takes more effort than actually being continent. We can say this is an extension of his rhetoric – he could do with any interlocutor as he wished – but then one has to explain where his considerable rhetorical ability as the most natural human came from. Either the image of Socrates that we have is an unintentional byproduct of his hedonism, or it is intentional. If intentional, then he’s more than a hedonist, and that leads me to my final thought for now.

“What is justice?” is the central concern for any queries about Socrates. It is peculiar why this should be the case. Shouldn’t there be more of a focus on his desiring to know, and what he can actually know? Shouldn’t we be debating whether the only real philosophy is natural philosophy, whether questions such “what is just” or “what is noble” are exercises in futility? Well, no. The key question is how the most natural human being fits in with those of us who are also human beings. Philosophic justice – to do no harm – is more than mere rhetoric. It is the hallmark of the truly good life, where the wisest and most ambitious among us might not discover anything new. Extended to the realm of knowledge, it shows that self-knowledge, as illusory and temporary as it is, of vital importance. There’s no way to secure what is good for oneself, convey a benefit to others, or preserve a question or body of knowledge for the future without knowing who one is and how one is perceived. It is only just to be aware of the opinions of others; it is only just to be knowledgeable as opposed to dismissive.

Jane Kenyon, “Who”

Who (from Otherwise)
Jane Kenyon

These lines are written
by an animal, an angel,
a stranger sitting in my chair;
by someone who already knows
how to live without trouble
among books, and pots and pans….

Who is it who asks me to find
language for the sound
a sheep’s hoof makes when it strikes
a stone? And who speaks
the words which are my food?


Admittedly, locating the Muse is difficult. Authors like Homer and Virgil seem divinely inspired. If we knew what moved them so, we might have access to divine status ourselves.

Kenyon’s speaker starts with what looks a more humble proposition. In attempting to write, in coming to language, she has to wonder who she is and what is within her. “These lines are written by an animal, an angel, a stranger sitting in my chair:” she’s at once all three and none at all. She is lowly, supernatural, and alienated from her own self. Despite the overtones of religious rhetoric, she has depicted the central puzzle of trying to be rational. One works to apprehend the truth, understand it fully, and apply it to one’s own life. Needless to say, these are three separate tasks with massive ironies lying in wait for those who think knowledge of one thing alone allows mastery over one’s own life. (1)

To be sure, the puzzle of trying to be rational leads back to the issue of divine status. If one could live “without trouble among books, and pots and pans,” one would be self-sufficient, ready to receive and use enlightenment. It almost seems only a god can truly know and use knowledge in the way we wish. It feels like the rest of us are confined to miserable ironies every time we make a pretension to knowledge. (2)

Kenyon, in the face of this, just wants to make her question clearer. “Who is it who asks me to find language for the sound a sheep’s hoof makes when it strikes a stone?” The desire to convey experience to another comes from wanting to be a part of the human species. All the same, the religious image is unmistakable. It sounds like a lost sheep is spoken about here, a sheep trying to climb something it probably shouldn’t attempt. I posit she still wonders, specifically, what drives her. Who needs to feel part of humanity, who wants to describe our motions, both those sustainable and those imperfect? What does it mean to follow blindly and be satisfied, to be lost and perhaps saved?

Finally, what of an intellectual necessity? “The words which are my food” are spoken by the speaker who does not understand what she says. She’s articulated her ignorance, her attempt to have knowledge where she might collapse into belief. Ultimately, the poem’s progression turns life on its head. In order to understand the alienation one feels as a writer, one had to assume oneself a writer. This means that daily life, even with troubles regarding books and pots and pans, takes care of itself to a degree. To find the words that accurately find one a mere sheep is to find a truth that does not mean what we think it means. We are not, in a sense, mere sheep. Yet we are, because we needed those words, our own.


1) Xenophon, Memorabilia III.9.10 – “[Socrates said] kings and rulers are not those who hold the scepters, nor those elected by just anybody, nor those who obtain office by lot, nor those who have used violence, nor those who have used deceit, but those who understand how to rule.” Leaving aside the problem that Xenophon’s Socrates has completely dismissed political legitimacy in any recognizable sense, and in fact makes himself guilty of the charges by saying such a thing, we have an endorsement of a view opposite to mine by no less than Socrates. Can’t we say that true knowledge is mastery? Doesn’t knowledge enable perfect practice? The quick answer: Socrates’ rhetoric is excellent. Better than dynastic claims, currying the favor of voters, getting randomly elected, or any tyrannical attempts at rule is actually knowing what you’re doing. Knowledge is superior to the typical practice of politics, and even to a degree to law itself, when things have to get done. I don’t know that the scope of this rhetoric should be extended to individual lives without qualification.

2) There are people who have made it their mission to take poetic musings and use them as hard limits on what one is allowed to question and know. In this sense, and perhaps only this sense, are philosophy and poetry distinct.

Sappho, “Sleep, darling…”

“Sleep, darling…” (tr. Mary Barnard)

Sleep, darling

I have a small
daughter called
Cleis, who is

like a golden 

      I wouldn't
take all Croesus'
kingdom with love
thrown in, for her


Turning to us while putting her daughter to sleep, she’s so excited about her she’s bashful, self-conscious, about it.

This is itself no small wonder. Excitement overflows, demanding rational explanation. You want to convey your joy to others. You want to convey it to yourself, because you don’t want to forget a single moment.

Maybe that’s why the image ultimately presented is hopelessly inadequate. No one would consider trading their children if they could help it. Trying to think through a hierarchy of goods, with “having a child” at the top, leads to having nothing to compare. All Sappho can do is introduce another set of circumstances involving giddy excitement, like winning the lottery (“Croesus’ kingdom with love thrown in”).

Sappho compares Cleis to a “golden flower,” mixing the height of convention with the heights of nature. Wealth, beauty, and growth can only hint at how Cleis stands to her mother. Her uniqueness is her most precious aspect; an assumed unreality of the “golden flower” hints at it. Croesus famously asked if he was the happiest of men, on account of his wealth and empire. His happiness stands as generic as Sappho’s purposefully throwaway phrase, “with love thrown in.” There’s no love like nursing this small daughter. To be perfectly clear, there’s no love, no happiness, otherwise.