On Understanding Japan: A Cultural History by Professor Mark J. Ravina (2015)

Book coverI borrowed this course from the library because I’ve only a passing knowledge of Japanese history from thin books like Samurai Warriors, although I have read original sources like Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai and The Book of Five Rings (and I learned the definition of Keiretsu from The Ninja as some of that novel’s back story is set in post World War II Japan). So I was excited to find this course at the library.

It’s a cultural history, so we get a bit of linear talk about the different eras in Japan’s past, but most of the lectures center around a topic and delve into its relevance in history.

Lectures include:

  • Japan: A Globally Engaged Island Nation
  • Understanding Japan through Ancient Myths
  • The Emergence of the Ritsuryo State
  • Aspects of the Japanese Language
  • Early Japanese Buddhism
  • Heian Court Culture
  • The Rise of the Samurai
  • Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism
  • Samurai Culture in the Ashikaga Period
  • Japan at Home and Abroad, 1300 – 1600
  • Japan’s Isolation in the Tokugawa Period
  • Japanese Theater: Noh and Kabuki
  • The Importance of Japanese Gardens
  • The Meaning of Bushido in a Time of Peace
  • Japanese Poetry: The Road to Haiku
  • Hokusai and the Art of Wood-Block Prints
  • The Meiji Restoration
  • Three Visions of Prewar Japan
  • War without a Master Plan: Japan, 1931 – 1945
  • Japanese Family Life
  • Japanese Foodways
  • Japan’s Economic Miracle
  • Kurosawa and Ozu: Two Giants of Film
  • The Making of Contemporary Japan

The tone is respectful, but not slavishly praising of the current regime (as one suspects modern Chinese histories are). The professor only lets slip some politics in a couple of places (calling a Japanese attempted assassin right-wing, saying that the way to improve declined fertility rates is government programs that did not exist when the fertility rate was higher, and so on).

The book also provided some additional context for the aforementioned Hagakure and The Book of Five Rings–although both purportedly represent the height of Bushido, the way of the warrior, they were both written after the wars in which the samurai fought, and Hogokare was not actually a military man–he was a scribe. Both of these books were written looking back at an earlier time, with a bit of nostalgia was well as disdain for the way things were when the books were written–that is, a peaceful period bordering on decadence.

So a good summary, overview course for someone just getting into Japanese history. As I’ve learned from listening to an audio course and reading a couple books on Chinese history, particulars will fade unless you continue studies with it, but highlights and perhaps some interesting stories will remain. As with the Chinese audio course, the names will fade a bit as I’ve heard them but have not seen them in print–so I might actually not recognizes them if I see them in print.

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On Friedrich Neitzsche narrated by Charlton Heston (1991)

Book coverNot long after having Charlton Heston and vocal talent narrate Søren Kierkegaard, I picked up the next chronological set of tapes, those on Neitzsche. You know, I am listening to tapes more than lectures or books on CD because my truck has a CD changer in it, where you can load up six CDs at once. Which sounds good if you’re the only one driving it, but it’s a bit of a hassle to load six CDs at once, and it’s even more of a struggle when your beautiful wife wants to load some of her CDs as well. Oh, the humanity!

So. This set details Neitsche’s life and thought, focusing mostly on the thought, and focusing mostly on Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil because, face it, that’s where the bulk of what you talk about when you talk about Neitzche comes from (unless you like to talk about his facial hair).

They rely a lot on vocal talent ranting Neitzsche’s own words in a harsh German accent, so it was distracting and hard to follow. But Neitzsche’s work is harsh and ranting anyway–I am sure I thought a little better of it when I was young, inclined to Dionysianism and thinking of myself as an ubermensch. But ultimately, the recasting of morals as dependent upon man’s capacities or whatever so that different actions are wrong or right depending upon…. Well, it’s clear that one, or a national socialist party, might take that to heart.

I never really got into Neitzsche as I was innoculated by my earlier exposure to Aaron Rodger’s favorite author Ayn Rand, wherein the superman (John Galt or Howard Roark, take your pick) was reined in by a real, concrete morality probably influenced by Kant and maybe Thomas Aquinas.

Which is kind of depressing, as I have an old Waldenbooks? Barnes and Noble? omnibus edition of Neitzsche around here, and if I am going to eventually read all of the books I own (assuming medical science can keep me alive until 2173), I will have to read it.

But, you know what? Listening to this book and reading the Neitzsche when my brain is in a jar and the “reading” is the injection of a certain chemical into the jar whilst receiving certain bioelectroradiographic pulses is still a good thing, if only to refresh how far one has come in one’s understanding of philosophy over the decades. Also, it was only a couple of hours of drive time, and, man, I love these things. But not the German accents.

(Oh, yeah, the latest link on the Aaron Rodgers maybe pointing at Ayn Rand on a podcast from Instapundit, who is seemingly the only thing that’s not a tabloid that I read.)

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On Comedy, Tragedy, History: The Live Drama and Vital Truth of William Shakespeare by Professor Peter Saccio (1996)

Book coverThis is an old timey Great Courses/Teaching Company set of cassettes. The copyright date says 1996, but the instructor at one point talks about the 1980s as being the present time, so it might have been recorded a couple of years before the copyright date. The lectures feature a live audience, so people laugh at his jokes and you can hear them shift from time to time–and one can expect that it’s actually them applauding at the end of each lecture–a sound effect that the company has kept throughout even though you cannot hear the audience otherwise or see them on the few DVDs I have watched.

The lectures include:

  • Shakespeare and Stratford
  • Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Theater
  • Richard III
  • Henry IV and Henry V
  • Twelfth Night
  • The Merchant of Venice
  • Hamlet
  • King Lear

It was a pretty short course–four or five hours–and the professor goes not only into Shakespeare in his time for context, but then delves into eight plays to provide some comment on them, their genres, and their interpretations over time.

For example, he talks about the Shylock question. As you might know, gentle reader, Shylock was a Jewish character in The Merchant of Venice, and the play apparently contains some stereotypes of Jews (that carry forward to this day). The professor talks about how the interpretation has changed over time to present a more sympathetic portrayal of the character, and the professor remarked that at least one performance he saw stripped some of the Jewishness from the character–and that plays in the 19th century were Bowlderized to remove the sex jokes, but in the late 20th century they were getting chopped up to remove other objectionable content. Brother, have I got news for you from the future.

At any rate, I really enjoyed these audiocassettes. If you’ve been here for some time, you might remember that I started reading the complete works of Shakespeare in 2018, and I got about five plays in before laying the book aside. See my category Shakespeare for my current progress on reading the book. If it has more than five entries, know that I have been inspired by this lecture series to pick it back up. I will have to pace the plays out like Executioner novels to ensure that I don’t get tired of them and see the formulaic parts too clearly. Perhaps 2022 will be a year of drama, as I have Volume 2 of the complete works of Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, around here somewhere (the first volume comprised the reading of my college course on Ben Jonson back in the early 1990s).

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On Soren Kierkegaard narrated by Charlton Heston (1991)

Book coverI have read a couple of books on Kierkegaard (Søren Kierkegaard in the Makers of the Modern Theological Mind series and Kierkegaard in the Leaders of Modern Thought series) and actually some of the source material Fear and Trembling. I think I have another book or two of his around here somewhere. This two cassette overview narrated by Charlton Heston makes the books sound more accessible than the books on Kierkegaard probably are.

Again, these Giants of Philosophy sets are two cassettes, so they run two and a half or three hours. So you don’t get a lot of depth of the thought but rather get more biography and summary of the high points of the thought–although some of the series, like Aristotle, get a little more detailed in the thought because the bio is so thin. This book talks about Kierkegaard’s private life and upbringing and relationships with his father and Regina, his spurned fiance. It goes through his publications roughly in order and how his thought evolved at the time, and how he eventually battled the organized Lutheran church in his hometown.

Like the best of these lectures and courses, it made me want to dive into more primary materials, perhaps Either/Or next if I find that I own a copy or if I get an ABC Books gift card for Christmas (or if another book signing occurs, and I have to buy something else as a fig leaf, although I am pretty sure Mrs. E. tells all the authors that I come to all the book signings, which is only a slight exaggeration).

I only have two more of these left, one on Neitzsche and one on John Dewey. I will be sad to finish what I own, and I will definitely keep my eyes out for others in the series in the future, especially if I can get them at a buck or less per (as I did with these this May).

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On Voltaire and the Triumph of the Enlightenment by Professor Alan Charles Kors (2001)

Book coverI took a break in the Charlton Heston-narrated cassettes on philosophers to listen to this Teaching Company/Great Courses series on French author Voltaire. Although I had read Candide–my beautiful wife and I took turns reading aloud from it during our courtship–I was not that familiar with him. This course certainly set me a-right. Apparently, he was the biggest European author/thinker of the 18th century, although it might be a touch exaggerated since it is a course on Voltaire, and the course slant tends to be a little homer if you know what I mean.

The lectures include:

  1. “The Patriarch”–An Overview
  2. The Education of a Philosophe
  3. Philosophical Letters, Part I
  4. Philosophical Letters, Part II
  5. The Years at Cirey
  6. From Optimism to Humanism
  7. Voltaire and the Philosophical Tale
  8. Voltaire and God
  9. Voltaire at Ferney
  10. Voltaire and History
  11. Voltaire and Toleration
  12. Apotheosis

It definitely gives a pretty good survey of his writing, his life, and his times. The strongest parts are, again, the biographical stretches and the specific works in the beginning. When we get to the broad summary Voltaire and lectures on the back half, it moves away from citing individual works and more exploring themes with little support in the actual texts.

But, still, I already knew my Voltaire from my Voltron, and should I fall into any trivia nights in the near future (unlikely), I will surely remember that he wrote a long poem on the Lisbon earthquake and that he wrote the Dictionnaire Philosophique. However, as time goes by, I will likely confuse that with Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. Except one is titled in French, although the obvious might not help me. Fortunately, the deadliest plague ever!!!1 has curtailed trivia nights. That, and in approximately eighteen minutes, I will misremember Voltaire’s birth name as Martin L’Aday and subsequently “remember” that Voltaire is French for meatloaf, which will be disputed the next time my beautiful and French-speaking wife serves her beloved meat casserole.

Also, when I was at Hooked on Books a week and a half ago, I mentioned looking for some Leibniz. Because this course says Voltaire started out really digging the philosophical optimism by argument Leibniz offered and then turned against it after the Lisbon earthquake and the death of Voltaire’s mortal beloved. So I’m interested in acquiring some Leibniz. Not necessarily reading it–heaven knows I have many, many fine primary texts that I’m saving for retirement–but to have just in case. As I’m going to ABC Books this morning, perhaps I will luck out.

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On Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World by Jeff Madrick / Narrated by Adam Grupper (2014)

Book coverI had hoped that this would be an antedote or rebuttal of Thinking Like An Economist: A Guide to Rational Decision Making, a Great Courses lecture series that started out explaining how free markets were good, allowing to use choose their actions to make their lives better according to their wishes but then veered into the econonmists know better and must maniuplate the “free” market so individuals make the right decisions.

Oh, but no.

Written not long after the banking crisis of 2008, this book instead takes the tack that the state did not have enough control of the economy to prevent the problems, and that the free market economists like Hayek and Friedman were the deluded puppetmasters who made the problem. Not Keynes and Krugman and their statist ilk. The problem with real socialism economism is that it’s never been tried!

I only made it a couple of chapters into it before abandoning it because I was listening to it while driving, and experiencing a Red Curtain of Blood (RCOB) and shouting Eff you, you effen mothereffer, that’s not true! until you’re hoarse while driving is dangerous.

So that’s my report. I didn’t make it deep enough to get to the enumerated ideas, but I am pretty sure that economic performance over the decade or thirteen years after the crisis would disprove the author’s beliefs (not arguments, which can be refuted, but beliefs which can only be reinforced). But I bet he loves him some Build Back Betterer thinking.

If you’re interested, I’d recommend reading it in throwable paperback rather than audiobook.

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On David Hume read by Charlton Heston (1990)

Book coverAll right, all right, all right–it’s actually been a couple of weeks since I finished listening to this short, two-cassette overview of David Hume’s life and thought. This is from the Giants of Philosophy series as were Socrates, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and Baruch Spinoza. Needless to say I am enjoying the series.

Helpfully, the vocal talent voicing Hume (Heston narrates, but vocal talents do the voices of original sources, including Hume and his critics) is doing a high Scottish accent, so it’s not distracting, and it’s not pompous. The, what, book? Lecture? Whatever the antecedent of the following pronoun, it balances Hume’s biography with his thought and offers a basic overview of his works over time.

And what do I think about Hume’s thinking? Well, I agree that our understanding of the world comes from our sensory experience, but Hume dismisses the role of reason and the human mind in being able to project future events from past experience. He also denigrates the self/soul as a coherent thing but rather a memory of sensations (but no predictions, of course–you cannot prove their worth or even a person’s ability to do them logically). So, dare I say it, it goes a little Buddhist for my taste.

I mean, you cannot reason a lot of things out of nothing but reason, but you can apply some thinking to your perceptions and get value out of it, ainna? So I’m a fan of his beginnings and some of his premises, but not his conclusions.

He’s part and parcel of what has become philopsyche: Instead of man’s place in the world, philosophy has turned a bit to the world’s place in man, and it ends up just as speculative and untethered from the concrete reality as purely reasoned speculation. Were I more than a layman dabbling in philosophy, I suppose I could seek out the primary sources–I have one or more on my shelves–and write a well composed refutation of them, but I have a list of things to do today, and Refute Hume ain’t on it. Of course, one of the things is to complete the filing in my office and maybe clear my desk, but where would I go for Five Things On My Desk posts? But, Brian J., you haven’t done one of those in two years! That’s because the same things are on my desk, gentle reader. I really need to clean it.

You want well-reasoned refutations of Enlightment’s failures, go to Blogodidact.

All I have to say is that the deeper I get into the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophy, the more I think Ayn Rand was on the right track with a lot of her thinking.

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On Baruch Spinoza read by Charlon Heston (1990)

Book coverAfter listening the Charlton Heston narrating St. Augustine, I went right into this, skipping ahead 1200 years (although I did listen to St. Thomas Aquinas earlier, so I did have a medieval interlude).

With Baruch Spinoza, we’re coming into more modern modes of thought. Spinoza embraces a sort of Platonism as well, but unlike St. Augustine, his does not contain a personal God. Instead, God is distant (but present in everything) and rather inscrutible except through deep thought, as God (not a he as that is antromorphic) created everything and continues to create everything every day, but God is not responsive to mankind at all.

So working from that point, Spinoza tries to build a set of ethics with some disappointing results.

The course is about half biography and half deep thought, which is just about right for this lecture series. I had to listen carefully to the bits that explored his theory of substances, modes, and attributes, and I’m pretty sure I would have to read more detail about them before I could talk intelligently about them, but rest assured, they’re Platonism in Dutch.

The course mentions how he influenced the Romantic poets–probably in the God is in Nature lines of thought, and how he was excommunicated from his local synagogue and lived a life in relative poverty and isolation as a result. But interesting.

You know, many of the lecture series I have, I put on the shelf as trophies, but these are brief enough and interesting enough that I might want to listen to them again. So long as I have continued access to a cassette deck.

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On Saint Augustine read by Charlton Heston (1990)

Book coverI listened to these lectures, er, audio books, out of order–I listened to St. Thomas Aquinas before this couple of cassettes, so I’m going out of order on the history of philosophy (sorry, Father Copleston, but I stalled out on your series years ago). I would probably have gotten more out of the Aquinas lectures reading how much his Aristotle-focus was a counterweight to Augustine’s Christian Platonism.

Which it is; I know, I just listened to the Teaching Company’s Augustine: Philosopher and Saint last February, so I remembered a bit of historical context–Augustine’s mother’s name was Monica, and he flirted with heretical thought in his youth, and the merging of Platonism with Christian thought.

You know, as I’m going through these philosophers again with Charlton Heston reading them to me, I think I’m soaking more in. The interplay between the thoughts. Of course, the Aristotle versus Plato bit. I like Augustine’s Platoism, though, amongst all the strains I’ve seen. Its World of Forms is God, and he somehow makes it a personal God as well–as I have mentioned, I need to read the primary sources more, but I’m not sure that I want to get into Professional Philosopher mode, where I spend years studying to split a hair differently than my also-publish-or-perish peers and base my argument on a particular translation which might not really capture exactly what the author meant. I prefer my high level, so that’s kind of what he was thinking approach. Where these short lecture series serve me well.

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Audiobook Report: Just a Guy: Notes from a Blue Collar Life by Bill Engvall (2007)

Book coverYou know, I first heard about Bill Engvalls in the middle 1990s, when my girlfriend referred to him as the guy who says, “Here’s your sign.” The Blue Collar Comedy Tour was, what, almost twenty years ago? And this book is from fourteen years ago, so it’s not fresh and new. It’s the story of Bill Engvall’s life up until that point, from his childhood in Winslow, Arizona, and Texas to his marriage and his start and climb into comedy.

So it’s not a gag reel; it is more a wry biography. I found it kind of meh, but poignant in spots–the story of his parents’ divorce and his wife’s brush with death after a miscarriage particularly struck me. But not much of the rest of it.

At the conclusion, he says he’ll be happy if he’s almost remembered as the fourth guy in the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. But rest assured, Mr. Engvall, you’ll always be the third guy because you had a tagline, although not as good as “You might be a redneck” or “Git-r-done.” To my knowledge, the fourth guy–Ron White? Maybe?–did not.

But he seems like a nice guy, and I feel like I might be selling him short, but the book just didn’t resonate.

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On St. Thomas Aquinas read by Charlton Heston (1990)

Book coverCharlton Heston reads this one, as he did Aristotle, so it’s the voice of Moses, Ben-Hur, and the Omega Man lending some heft to the reading. But his part is not really a dramatic reading–he’s reading the content pretty straight. And, fortunately, the dramatic readers who step in to act/read the quotes from Aquinas and his contemporaries and critics play it pretty straight, although other friars from Italy speaking with Italian accents but Aquinas speaks in American English which is inconsistent.

The two hours focuses as much on his biography as his thought, but it does show how he re-introduced Aristotle to the Western canon and interpreted him for the Christians. Which reminds me of how much I want to own a copy of Summa Theologica. It’s only a couple hundred dollars. Not like the complete works of Hemingway, which runs to the thousands for a nice matched set.

Of course, would I read it? I would aspire to read it, gentle reader. Although to be honest, I’m getting a little less aspirational these days. Why, I did not even go into the Better Books section at the recent Friends of the Springfield-Greene County Library book sale.

Well, I’ve gone afield here from talking about Aquinas, though, ainna? Dominican friar, a great teacher, one of the first Dominicans to teach at the University (and not without some scandal), participated in public lectures where he answered questions extemporaneously at length. So this is a good portal to the life and works of Aquinas. Better than studying four years at a formerly Thomist Catholic university anyway, although I dropped my theology minor impetuously one semester, and the university was far along the secularization path even then.

But I am enjoying the set of cassettes I got in the spring, and I’m pleased to see that Heston is reading more of them than Redgrave.


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On Aristotle read by Charlton Heston (1990)

Book coverI actually started listening to this pair of audiocassettes pretty soon after listening to Socrates at the end of June, but I got a little bogged down because unlike Socrates which was heavy on the biography and only broadly spoke of his philosophical leanings as filtered through Plato.

I had to listen to this book a little more closely, though, as it went into greater detail into Aristotle’s work, which was probably lecture notes transcribed and arranged by his students after the fact. Still, it required more attention than I could give it on family drives in the summer, and I really didn’t go anywhere much without the family in the summer. At some point in post-trip car-cleaning, the cassettes disappeared from the console, and they only made their way back to my office but recently.

So what can I say briefly about Aristotle? The man started, well, not from the very beginning–there were philosophers before him–but his systematic approach to natural science and then onto thought, ontology, metaphysics, and ethics really marked a starting point of sorts. Well, I suppose you could say he offered a counterpoint to Plato, but, c’mon, man, we’re not idealists here, are we? So the audiobook hits the highlights, but it still quotes Aristotle at length, and that’s where you really need to pay attention.

Charlton Heston reads the book, but other vocal talent performs quoted texts, so whenever Aristotle speaks, we get someone doing Aristotle. However, the interpretation of Aristotle is a bit to learnéd, a bit to pompous, to do anything but distract. I mean, you have Charlton Heston reading the book. Why not let him read the quotes, too?

At any rate, it’s a good intro or a good refresher. In my case, it’s a good reminder that I have read too little Aristotle.

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On Happy, Happy, Happy by Phil Robertson with Mark Schlabach (2013)

Book coverTaking a break from the audio courses, I picked up this set of CDs to listen to in the few times I’m in the car alone for any length of time these days. As it’s summer, I’m not spending half of my car time going to pick up or coming back from dropping off a boy–I generally have one or more with me. So it took me a while to get through this set of 5 CDs even though it only runs about five hours. In the other seasons, I can easily listen to five hours of lectures/audio books a week.

No, I’ve never actually seen an episode of Duck Dynasty. I mean, last year I read Si-Cology 101 by/about one of Robertson’s brothers in the company; the book mentions this book on a promotional page at the end, but I didn’t guess I’d get it a year later. I have also drinken the wine. And I used to buy Duck Dynasty-themed stuff for my aunt at Christmas. But not the television series.

This book, read by his son Al Robertson, tells Phil Robertson’s biography from his childhood through college football (he was the starting quarterback at Louisiana Tech ahead of Terry Bradshaw) through some booze-soaked years hunting, teaching, and running a rowdy bar until he becomes a Christian and straightens his life out. He becomes a commercial fisherman and then designs and builds a better duck call that he builds in his workshop and starts getting into stores in the south, eventually including Walmart (starting with individual stores, which was unheard of). Robertson also draws lessons from his stories to try to help the reader/listener learn from his experience.

So he’s got lots of hunting stories and drinking stories. He is a little older than my father would have been, so when he talks about boozing and hunting and being crazy, that kind of fits with what my father was through his discharge from the Marines and through the 1970s, except instead of coming to Jesus, my parents divorced.

So I enjoyed it a bit from that perspective just like I like to read the local columnists in the small town papers I take–they tell the kinds of stories that my father would tell.

So worth the five hours. I might even end up with some of the Duck Commander or Duck Dynasty videos if I stumble across them.

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On Socrates read by Lynn Redgrave (1995)

Book coverThis is not a Teaching Company/The Great Courses production (or even Modern Scholar). It’s a mid-1990s Knowledge Products two cassette set that I bought this spring, so it weighs in at about two hours. Amazingly, instead of college professors holding their own lectures, though, they feature Hollywood talent. Lynn Redgrave, for example, handles the heavy duties on this particular–what, item? Set? At any rate, the two cassettes. When it comes time to quote either Socrates or other people talking about Socrates, other vocal talent comes in–often with appropriate accents and whatnot. My beautiful wife found it distracting, but I did not.

Well, as you know, gentle reader, Socrates left no writings of his own–the dialogues of Plato feature Socrates as a character in them, perhaps derived from his actual works, but probably not exactly. This, um, bit explains that the earlier Plato dialogues are probably more from Socrates real concerns and later things are Plato’s work with Socrates as a character. The book/series/audiocassettes focus as much on Socrates’ life as his work, and some contemporaries or relatively contemporaneous sources talk a bit about Socrates’ life (in appropriate Serious Classics Voices, although not so much in Greek accents).

So, you know what, it’s not a bad bit of drive time. Of course, all of you are not driving a top-of-the-line ca. Obama Elected truck that also has an audio cassette player in it, but brothers and sisters, I assure you that when I have another vehicle and upgrade the sound system, I am going to ask for a cassette deck in it just so I can continue to listen to these sub-dollar bits of lectures in them.

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On Great Masters: Beethoven by Professor Robert Greenberg (2001)

Book coverAs you might recall, gentle reader, I have listened to a couple of other lecture sets in the musical Great Masters series, most notably Brahms and Liszt earlier this year.

So, this is Beethoven, one of the three big Bs (Bach and Brahms the other, who precede and aftercede Beethoven respectively). He comes of age when piano technology is improving so that it can be thundering and not just tinkling, and Beethoven uses it to great effect. He’s a bit of an ass, though, which leads to some problems in his personal life and professional dealings. Also, he goes deaf over the course of his career.

Basically, if you saw Gary Oldman in Immortal Beloved, you get the gist of it, although Greenberg proffers a different identity for the addressee of the letter than the film did. Aw, c’mon, man, you know that Beethoven wrote but did not send a love letter addressed to his immortal beloved, and scholars have speculated to whom he had written it, ainna?

At any rate, this set of lectures does not move in chronological order; instead, it starts toward the end of his career with some reversals of fortune and then goes back to talk about his youth and early career.

The lectures include:

  1. The Immortal Beloved
  2. What Comes Down Must Go Up, 1813-1815
  3. What Goes Up Must Come Down, 1815
  4. Beethoven and His Nephew, 1815-1819
  5. Beethoven the Pianist
  6. Beethoven the Composer, 1792-1802
  7. The Heroic Ideal
  8. Two Concerts, 1808 and 1824

Beethoven’s life kind of follows the pattern of the other artists/composers: An unhappy childhood, being pushed into music, being tutored by a known musician (Haydn in Beethoven’s case), and so on. Perhaps Greenberg told the story in this disordered fashion to keep it fresh.

Which is why I am spacing these lecture series out: They kind of follow similar arcs, and as I’m not that trained in actual musicology yet, the music sounds kind of similar. Greenberg’s a great lecturer and fun to listen to, but my enthusiasm for the subject matter has its limits, especially the more I listen to these Great Masters courses.

Which means it will take me quite some time to get through the series I have in this line.

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On Emperors of Rome by Professor Garrett G. Fagan (2007)

Book coverAfter Lost Christianities, I thought I would pick up something that I could listen to with the boys in the car. I didn’t end up doing so, though, as many of the lectures were bloody and brutal, especially when it came to succession. So it took me a while to get through the series since my time was limited in the car.

The lectures include:

  1. The Shape of Roman Imperial History
  2. The Roman Republic
  3. Caesar and the Suicide of the Republic
  4. The First Emperor–Augustus
  5. The Powers of Augustus
  6. Succession Woes
  7. Livia Drusilla, Empress of Rome
  8. The Early Years of Tiberius
  9. The Would-Be Emperor, Sejanus
  10. The Mad Emperor? Caligula
  11. Killing Caligula, Finding Claudius
  12. The Odd Couple–Claudius and Messalina
  13. Power and Poison–Agrippina and Claudius
  14. Artist and Assassin–Nero
  15. The Trouble with Christians
  16. Dynasty’s End–The Fall of Nero
  17. The Long Year, A.D. 69
  18. The First Flavian–Vespasian
  19. The Last Flavians–Titus and Domitian
  20. Pax Augusta–Nerva and Trajan
  21. Trajan in Rome and the East
  22. The Eccentric Emperor–Hadrian
  23. Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus
  24. Marcus in the North and Commodus
  25. Civil War and Septimus Severus
  26. Caracalla and the Severian Dynasty
  27. Emperor and City
  28. Emperor and Empire
  29. Emperor and Elite
  30. Emperor and People
  31. Emperor and Soldier
  32. Chaos
  33. Aurelian, Diocletian, and the Tetrarchy
  34. Constantine–Rise to Power
  35. The Christian Emperor–Constantine
  36. Reflections on The Emperors of Rome

So, briefly, I can name the Roman emperors in order from Augustus to, what, Severius? But once we get to the next round of civil wars, we get a bunch of claimants and soldier-emperors, and I lose track a bit.

So, what does one learn from this audio course? Well, some interesting trivia about Rome, some better sense of how it was governed, some of the war situations on the frontier, and some of the architectural contributions. How it went in cycles from strongman to brief dynasty to civil war to strongman. A couple of the emperors were considered crazy and a couple were considered ‘good’ or beneficial to the empire or history as a whole, but that the reigns had ups and downs and most of the impact was felt by Rome and the court. Which is somewhat consoling in this the modern world, but our panopticon internet and our incessant need to say “Look at me!” makes it easier for the would-be emperors and their hangers-on in these days. Listen to me talking about it–I am at eighteen years and running on this blog, ainna?

At any rate, an interesting listen: The lecturer describes the emperors’ reigns narratively but for a few survey lectures that explore the emperors’ changing relationships with the city, the elite, the people, the empire, and the soldiers.

So what would I tell my uncle I remember from the course? Probably passing familiarity with emperors by name and relative length of their tenures. A little about Trajan and Hadrian that I hadn’t known reinforcement of some received judgments about others like Caligula and Nero. A bit more reinforcement of early Christian history where it intersects with the Roman empire.

So it was about eighteen hours of listening over a couple of months, and it’ll probably be a while before I get through another as the school year has ended and with it my daily commute taking the youngest to school daily.

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On Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication by Professor Bart D. Ehrman (2002)

Book coverI listened to Professor Ehrman’s The History of the Bible: The Making of the New Testament Canon in 2019.

This series of lectures takes a bit of a different focus: It looks at some of the variant Christian churches in the early centuries of the church, the first and second centuries AD, right after the gospels and Pauline letters were written. Many of these churches had different collections of books that they used as scripture, including some elements that made it into the New Testament canon and others relegated to apocrypha. The winnowing didn’t involve necessarily purging, inquisitions, and punishing heretics, although some of that was involved. But mostly this lecture focuses on the books themselves.

The lecture is structured a bit into introduction, identifying some large groups of churches aside from the proto-orthodox (which would eventually dominate and determine the canon), and then examining some of the apocryphoral books based on types (gospels, acts, epistles, apocalypses) and ending with a bit of how the proto-orthodox became The Church and set the canon–which might lead into the other lecture series.

The lectures include:

  1. The Diversity of Early Christianity
  2. Christians Who Would Be Jews
  3. Christians Who Refuse To Be Jews
  4. Early Gnostic Christianity–Our Sources
  5. Early Christian Gnosticism–An Overview
  6. The Gnostic Gospel of Truth
  7. Gnostics Explain Themselves
  8. The Coptic Gospel of Thomas
  9. Thomas’ Gnostic Teachings
  10. Infancy Gospels
  11. The Gospel of Peter
  12. The Secret Gospel of Mark
  13. The Acts of John
  14. The Acts of Thomas
  15. The Acts of Paul and Thecla
  16. Forgeries in the Name of Paul
  17. The Epistle of Barnabas
  18. The Apocalypse of Peter
  19. The Rise of Early Christian Orthodoxy
  20. Beginnings of the Canon
  21. Formation of the New Testament Canon
  22. Interpretation of Scripture
  23. Orthodox Corruption of Scripture
  24. Early Christian Creeds

When I listened to Buddhism, I marvelled at how disparate the strains of Buddhism were, especially in contrast to Christianity. One sees in this lecture series how disparate Christianity could have become without the centralizing influence of Rome on it. One wonders if Buddhism had arisen in one of the strong Chinese dynasties instead of India whether it would be more standard, or how Christianity might have evolved outside of the Mediterranean world of the Roman empire.

At any rate, I think I sharpened up some of my understanding of the gnostics, learned who the Ebionites were, and understand some of the source material for Medeival and Renaissance religious art lies outside of the Bible and in these, what, Further Adventures Of… Christian storybooks. However, if I were going to take a test on it, I would definitely have to study. I am learning the real limitations of listening to the audio courses–one that my uncle in Kansas City pointed out–that I don’t remember a whole lot from the lectures–just bits and pieces and cool stories therein. This set of lectures is fairly narrative and focused, so I hope I remember a bunch from it. But after I hit Publish on this report, unless I make an effort to bring it up elsewhere and in conversation, I probably will only retain about ten minutes of it including the Bradenberg Concerto fanfare that starts each lecture (this set is from before The Great Courses/Teaching Company changed the intro to a single chord).

Still, better than listening to the same Jack playlist on the radio all the time.

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On Buddhism by Professor Malcolm David Eckel (2001)

Book coverAs I mentioned, I got bogged down listening to this audio course, one of the longer, 24-lecture series (although, yes, I know some courses go even longer yet). I mean, I think I skipped the last lecture in the first part (it comes in two binders, as two sets, as library editions do) because I was so excited to finish the first part that I stopped and ejected the CDs from my automobile when I finished the first lecture on that CD (these are 2 thirty minute lectures per CD). Then, I loaded the next set in the car, listened to the first lecture on the second set (“Buddhist Philosophy”) before pausing for something more exciting (History’s Greatest Blunders and the Lessons They Teach). Then, when I finished that course, I reloaded this set and inadvertently listened to the penultimate lecture (“Zen”) because the audio system played the sixth CD, the last one loaded, first, and I realize that I’d skipped a whole 10 lectures until he said the next lecture was the last one, at which point I listened to the 13th (“Buddhist Philosophy”) again and hoped I hadn’t listened to two or three lectures I would have to repeat to get back to where I paused.

All this is made possible by the scope of the lecture series and by Buddhism itself. This course provides a very, very high level overview not only of the history of the Buddhist traditions but also some insight into their thoughts and philosophies as well–and over the course of 2000 years or so and introduction into several different Asian cultures produced a great variety of different religions all called “Buddhism.” I mean, you go from emptying yourself to escape the cycle of rebirth in what is essentially an off-shoot of Hinduism to Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that are akin to angels to a full on there is one omniscient and omnipresent Buddha that you can pray to, and Siddhartha was his earthly avatar. You know, these are not the same, but they’re all in “Buddhism.” It’s as though you would take all the Abrahamic religions along with all their various denominations and heresies (unpunished) and call them a single thing.

The lectures include:

  1. What is Buddhism?
  2. India at the Time of the Buddha
  3. The Doctrine of Reincarnation
  4. The Story of the Buddha
  5. All is Suffering
  6. The Path to Nirvana
  7. The Buddhist Monastic Community
  8. Buddhist Art and Architecture
  9. Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia
  10. Mahayana Buddhism and the Bodhisattva Ideal
  11. Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas
  12. Emptiness
  13. Buddhist Philosophy
  14. Buddhist Tantra
  15. The Theory and Practice of the Mandala
  16. The “First Diffusion of the Dharma” in Tibet
  17. The Schools of Tibetan Buddhism
  18. The Dalai Lama
  19. The Origins of Chinese Buddhism
  20. The Classical Period of Chinese Buddhism
  21. The Origins of Japanese Buddhism
  22. Honen, Shinran, and Nichiren
  23. Zen
  24. Buddhism in America

To be honest, the firehouse of information, delivered in a low-key manner, and the foreignness of the names involved (I could not visualize the name Avalokoteshvara, for example, which makes it harder to individualize the thinkers or Buddhas) means most of what I heard won’t stick with me–but it is a survey course. I have the two course books set aside for light review later, but I suppose if I wanted to really study Buddhism, I would have to pick a flavor and dive more deeply into it. But, honestly, as I mentioned, the ontology (ontologies) don’t really speak to me (although does any ontology make sense without belief?). Most people who get into it, I suspect, are looking for the calming and practical aspects of meditation and mindfulness. Zen, one of the less ontologically focused strains of Buddhism, is good for this.

At any rate, I have another two-part course on Buddhism that I picked up last September, so I can do some A/B testing comparing the two courses except I probably won’t get to the other course any time soon since I still have most of that stack of courses awaiting me, and the next book sale is coming up in less than a month, and I hope to score some more courses in diverse subjects then.

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On History’s Great Military Blunders and the Lessons They Teach by Professor Gregory S. Aldrete (2015)

Book coverI borrowed this set of lectures from the library because I was getting bogged down in the Buddhism lecture series I popped in to break up the Great Masters of music biographies I’d been listening to (and which I’ll be listening too again, and more, as I received others in the line for Valentine’s Day and for my birthday last month).

Purportedly, the point of the lectures is to study these stories and analyze what causes great military failures, and they boil down to a couple of obvious things: Failure in planning, failure in execution, overconfidence, unclear orders, unclear chains of command, lack of cooperation between rival commanders or branches of service, failure to adapt to conditions, failure to recognize failure and to cut the losses.

But, really, come on. It’s really an excuse to talk about battles in history. The aural equivalent of coffeebook tables about war. Something to browse with one’s ears whilst driving the kids to and from school. And, to be honest, I kind of get to my boy’s school early for car line/to pick the other up from activities so I can listen to lectures like these. Lectures on Buddhism–eh, not as much.

The lectures include:

  1. Petersburg: Union Digs Its Own Grave
  2. Syracuse: Athens’s Second Front–413 B.C.
  3. Carrhae: The Parthian Shot–53 B.C.
  4. Red Cliffs: Cao Cao’s Bad Day–208 A.D.
  5. Barbarian Gate: Adrianople–378, Pliska–811
  6. The Fourth Crusade: Byzantium Betrayed–1204
  7. Kalka River: Genghis Khan’s General–1223
  8. Courtai: Knights versus Shopkeepers–1302
  9. Nagashino: Taking Swords to a Gunfight–1575
  10. Cartagena: High Walls, Short Ladders
  11. Culloden: The Bonnie Prince Blunders–1746
  12. Russia: Napoleon Retreats in the Snow–1812
  13. Afghanistan: Khyber Pass Death Trap–1842
  14. Crimea: Charge of the Light Brigade–1854
  15. Greasy Grass: Custer’s Last Stand–1876
  16. Isandlwana: 25,000 Zulus Undetected–1896
  17. Adwa: Italy’s Fiasco in Ethiopia–1899
  18. Colenso: The Second Boer War–1899
  19. Tannenberg: Ineptitude in the East–1914
  20. Gallipoli: Churchill Dooms Allied Assault–1915
  21. World War II: Royal Navy Goes Down–1941-42
  22. Dieppe Raid: Catastraphe on the Beach–1942
  23. Operation Market Garden: A Bridge Too Far–1944
  24. The Great Blunders: Four Paths to Failure

It’s a broad sampling throughout history which kind of gives one some reminders and/or insight into different epochs. I mean, I was familiar with Custer’s Last Stand and the Charge of the Light Brigade, for example, and I have a contemporaneous book about Napoleon’s incursion into Russia that I might want to dig out and read. As I mentioned, the battle of Carrhae was mentioned in The Judgment of Caesar, so I felt smart knowing it from these lectures before I read that book.

Each lecture gives a bit of the history leading up to the battle followed by the battle itself, so each is a self-contained narrative that holds together individually. One thing that struck me, though, is that each of the stories is about groups of people in conflict, but in the lectures on Americans vs. Native Americans and Europeans vs. Africans (Isandlwana and Edwa), the lecturer took time to offer judgment against the Americans or Europeans for their policies that led to the battle. I don’t know if the judgment was lighter in other lectures or if I have just turned into one of those bean counters in the 21st century. But here we are.

At any rate, a fun, informative listen that really didn’t make me a better student of military tactics or strategy. All I know is that some of those poor bastards were doomed at the outset of their maladventures due to very poor planning on the parts of their leadership. Which makes some of these stories tragic more than heroic.

But enough of the fun stuff: it’s back to the Buddhism for me.

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On Great Masters: Liszt–His Life and Music by Professor Robert Greenberg (2002)

Book coverAfter listening to the course on Brahms earlier in the month, I started on this one immediately as Brahms hated him. So I wanted to see if Liszt hated Brahms. Although it is mentioned, more time is focused on how Liszt helped Wagner’s career along and then came to hate him even as one of his (Liszt’s) daughters married the opera composer.

So, Liszt life does follow the pattern of many of the other composers and important musical figures of his time: A gifted child, nay, a prodigy whose family sacrifices to get him musical lessons and then take him on tour before he’s ready, like Luke leaving Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back. They make some money, but something happens (Liszt’s father dies while leading Liszt on the tour) which ends that segment of his life. He then takes a few years off, goes on an extended concert tour, supports from afar a Hungarian rebellion (Liszt being a Hungarian born of German stock, he identifies as Hungarian). He settles in Weimar, builds it into a cultural center, and has a turbulent family life with two women whom he cannot marry.

The lectures include:

  1. Le Concert, C’est Moi–The Concert Is Me
  2. A Born Pianist
  3. Revelation
  4. Transcendence
  5. Weimar
  6. The Music at Weimar
  7. Rome
  8. A Life Well Lived

The lectures have a wonderful digression into the evolution of the harpsichord into the piano and then improvements in piano technology that really allowed the music of Beethoven and eventually Liszt.

So my impression of it is that Liszt was a phenomenal pianist and composer of piano pieces–whose works were often called impossible to play until someone saw Liszt himself do it–but he is not as well known for his symphonies. And later, he wrote symphonic poems, musical responses to known stories, that were not well received in his day but are heavily influential even to this day. Which probably means that they played some part in the twentieth century degradation of all arts, but I am not steeped enough in the study of music–despite listening to a couple of these lecture series–to really make a good case for it. I just hold as my default that all art veered from good to laying the ground work for bad in about 1880 or thereabouts.

Still, I like Robert Greenberg as a lecturer and look forward to the other couple of sets I have on the stack in this lecture series series. Although I have changed focus and am listening to something different now–I fear if I listened to them all at once, I would not distinguish them as well as their biographies have a lot of similarities.

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