Sunday, September 24, 2017

Personal Reflection V - Complexity

I have concerned myself in thought with the concept of complexity whereby simple systems develop in stages and take on new characteristics at each stage Examples are the evolution of the species, complex machinery systems and human social interaction. What fascinates me is the novelty that appears at each level. Its uniqueness that sets it apart from the ‘sum of all characteristics’ of the lower rungs. How does this novelty arise? Why is it often greater than the ‘sum of’? and how does this new intelligence attempt to manifest itself in other layers of organization? Maybe chaos theory tells the story? Somehow I doubt this but clearly there is an emergence of an order that requires explanation. Hopefully I can scratch the surface of some of these problems.

The Western World in 300 Events: Event 38 - Defining features of the Roman Republic

The Roman Republic that immediately replaced the monarchy was structured along more obvious democratic lines although it was still very much of an oligarchy in all functionality. It would survive until 27 BC and had at its core an unwritten constitution with principles passed down by precedent.

The strongest body of power within Rome was the Senate. It passed decrees (senatus consulta) and its members were appointed by Roman Censors (officers in  charge of the city census and a watchdog for public morality). However the Censors would lose clout over time with real power flowing into the hands of the Triumvirate (a group of three influential figures) who took authority upon special commission to fulfill specific tasks. Most Senators were initially members of the hereditary nobility (the Patricians) but this would change over time with non-Patricians (Plebeians) taking their spot on the Senate using the ticket of wealth or military success as a driver.

In contrast to the Senate stood the legislative assemblies who were tasked with representing the voice of the citizens. They functioned largely on a legal basis and involved themselves in issues of marriage, contract law, tax exemption status, the holding of office and political rights. Citizens were organized on a tribal level that was motivated by geographical considerations. There were various types of assemblies with the Council of Plebs (a Plebian body) being the most active with respect to day-to-day law making of a practical nature.

Another position, the Quaestor, was responsible for financial audits. Initially these office holders were elected but these became more of appointed position as the Republic transitioned to the Empire.

The Western World in 300 Events: Event 37 - Foundation of Rome and its Transition to a Republic

The mantle of Western Civilization so brandished by the Greeks would be transferred to their natural successors the Romans. Legend has it that the Rome itself was built by Romulus who killed his brother Remus after arguing about the site location for the city. Virgil saw the Romans as the descendants of the city state of Troy who had so valiantly (but ultimately unsuccessfully) battled the Achaean Greeks in the period between 1194-1184 BC in what was to be known as the Trojan Wars (The same conflict described by Homer in his epic poem The Iliad). However it is more likely that the Romans emerged from a settlement population of Italian origin who developed along the Tiber River.
The First Roman King was indeed named Romulus (753-716 BCE) and early Roman history was very much entangled with the history of the Etruscans who around 900-500 BC were the dominant group on the Italian peninsula

However the kingdom collapsed in 509 BC with L. Tarquin Superbus serving as its last monarch. Events leading to the downfall of the last king were bought to a head by a revolt of the nobility. This followed the saga of the rape of the aristocrat woman Lucretia by the king’s son. It would be replaced by the Republic.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Personal Reflection IV - Losing interest in the Economist

I was an avid reader of the Economist in the 90s. The articles were generally well written and informative which definitely appealed to me. That they reflect a certain form that punches from the top is an immediate observation and after a while one can start reproducing with ease the magazine's trademark literary style. However I grew tired of the Economist and by 2000 or so I ended my subscription. Part of the problem with the Economist (as its name indicates) is that it tends to view every almost all political issues through the prism of finance and commerce. While this can be useful at times I find it overly reductionist, lacking in the human element and dismissive of the complexities of history that almost always extend beyond such a model.

 I also found their cheerleading of Free Trade as a global panacea - a position that I have very much lost sympathy with - to be tiresome and off base. In a sense the Economist is the voice of right-of-center internationalism. It is the ideas and thoughts of the Davos elite and it reflects a nihilism that at times cynically and unnecessarily scoffs at the traditions of Western Civilization find this position odious. Now this is not to say that I won't read the magazine again  as it is more palatable in smaller doses but there is only so much of its armchair pontificating that I am willing to tolerate on a more consistent level.

The Western World in 300 Events: Event 36 - Hellenic Age

What was tragic is that Alexander left no successors so that his vast Empire encompassing 5.2 million square kilometres was divided amongst his generals. The divisions would lead to the emergence of four power blocs: Ptolemaic (Egypt), Seleucid (Mesopotamia and Central Asia), Attalid (Anatolia - Turkey) and Antigonid (Macedon). These blocs would war with each (Lamian and Diadochi wars) however the Hellinistic period that followed his death would last for three hundred years and bring with it a certain degree of stability.

It was the first time in history that the Western thought would emerge at least for a time as a dominant influence over the heartland of Eurasia. In the most dramatic of senses Alexander had triumphed over the rival model shrouded in a mysticism that characterized the Persian dominated Zoroastrian outlook

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Personal Reflection III - Some Excellent Graphic Novels

I am a late entrant but have become a strong admirer of the medium of the Graphic Novel. Like regular novels they are largely driven by the quality of writing and story depth but the art work adds an extra dimension that can make the reading a thoroughly worthwhile experience.

Here are a few that I would recommend

1. Watchmen – Along with Frank Miller, Alan Moore is easily the best writer in the comic book world. Watchmen, is an in depth view into the psychology of being a superhero (a topic alluded to by Stan Lee and Miller as well). It is a truly spectacular work (far superior to V for Vendetta - another Moore work) and indicative of Moore’s real genius that I first acquainted myself with, during my teens, when he wrote the Future Shock Series for 2000 AD. Most people are familiar with the movie but the universe that Moore creates which brings us Ozymandias, the second Silk Spectre, Doctor Manhattan, the Comedian, the second Nite Owl and Rorschach is unparalled in its brilliance.

2. Contract with God – Will Eisner is another writer of immense distinction and his examination of Frimme Hersh in A Contract with God is a much needed work of philosophical significance. Eisner writes about tragedy, love and life struggle as seen through the eyes of a Jewish New Yorker trying to make sense of the never ending curveballs that the universe throws at him.

3. 300 – Frank Miller’s 300 is a gripping read from beginning to end. The story recreates, with significant artistic license, the events of the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC). While it shouldn’t be taken as real history the excitement value of this story is incredible. Miller has a legacy of pushing the envelope with his writing and 300 is no exception. Fans of Miller should also read his crime thriller series, Sin City as well as his four-issue resurrection of Batman in the Dark Night Returns. The latter is a must for all-lovers of the caped crusader who is easily the most complex and dynamic of the DC characters.

4. The Stand – This Graphic adaptation of the Stephen King that carries the same name is not that easy to find but does exist in libraries in the GTA. Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sarcasa and illustrated by Mike Perkins (published in 2008) the Stand is divided into six books. It tells the story of the aftermath of a deadly plague that has wiped out most of humanity. The world is divided into camps of good and evil who battle for the spoils of what remains. The story arcs of its many characters (one of which is the demon Randall Flagg – a regular King villain) are filled with twists and turns that weld into a powerful plot devoid of oversig

The Western World in 300 Events: Event 35 - Conquests of Alexander the Great

The Classical Era in Greek History (which lasted for two hundred years between the 5th and 4th centuries BC) was followed by the Hellenic Period that was consistent with the rise of the Northern kingdom of Macedonia as the power centre within the Greek mainland.

Philip of Macedonia defeated the alliance of Thebians and Athenians at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC and brought the city-states under his sphere of influence. To consolidate his power he formed the League of Corinth in 337 BC but it was his son Alexander the Great who did more than anyone to expand Greek influence eastward.

Alexander the Great was arguably one of the most brilliant military figures to grace all of history and was the first true military champion and active expander of the Western ideal. He ruled as King of Macedon for less than thirteen years (336-323 BC) but built a legacy that would persist for centuries after his death.

The greatest success of Alexander, at least on the battle field, were the victories that he recorded over the Archaemenid Persians who were dispatched in a series of battles of which Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela and Persian Gate are the most important. In doing so he captured the cities of Babylon and Susa and absorbed the Persian Empire (up until this point the world’s largest Empire) into his own.

He also campaigned in Egypt, the Levant and the Balkans before driving eastwards into India where he recorded another famous victory at Hydaspes River.

Alexander spread the message of Greek Civilization. He was a personal student of Aristotle and believed in the supremacy of the rationalism of his culture. Yet he was driven by ambition and when this ambition could not go further (his troops actively rebelled when he wanted them to march on to conquer more land) he stagnated, drank himself into an early grave and by the young age of 32 he was to be no more.