This Week’s Literature: Plato and Kurt Vonnegut

In the last week or so, I read two additional pieces of literature. First, I read Plato’s The Republic (380 B.C.). This is a dialogue between Plato and various locals and foreigners. This work reads as a conversation: basically, someone gives an opinion about the idea of justice and he attempts to prove his view of justice in a very methodical way. So methodical, actually, that it made me feel like I was on a jury and he was an attorney trying to convince me.

The topic of this work is Justice. Plato ultimately attempts to prove, through logical reasoning, that the just man is necessarily happier than the unjust man. He does this in sort of an analogous way by describing how a society goes through stages of growth (hence, the title: The Republic) and experiences timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, then tyranny — one necessarily decaying and leading into the next.

This work also discusses the idea of a Philosopher-King and the idea of forms. You might remember this from high school (or maybe college). There is a story of people who are locked in a cave and see reflections on a wall, from the light shining on various objects. They would point to a shadow of a table and believe that that is actually is the table, because they can’t see the light, nor what the light is pointing at. They ascribe the Form of a table to that shadow. A Philospher is like a prisoner who has escaped from the cave and understands the Forms. He has a duty to educate those who don’t know and only this type of person is fit to rule a society.

OK, long story short: This is a book that I felt like I should read so that I can say I have. It was very boring to me — but then, I have never been interested in politics or philosophy. I lost focus and the ideas went over my head several times. But I can’t deny that this is one of the most important written works in world history, and certainly one which has influenced countless future writers, thinkers, and leaders.

—————————————————————————————————————————Just minutes ago, I finished Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse – Five (1969). I feel like this is a book than many high school students are reading now, but I never did. First off, I think the title is interesting because the actual Slaughterhouse-Five pretty much has zero to do with the entire story, and actually is only mentioned a couple times; I think it’s a pretty unimportant detail. The alternate title to this work is The Children’s Crusade and I think that is a much more compelling title for everything that happens in the story.

This is a satirical, semi-autobiographical, science fiction/war novel written in 1st and 3rd person. I thought it was a pretty odd story!

The story concerns the life of Billy Pilgrim who is a POW in World War II and “witnesses” the firebombing and destruction of Dresden, Germany. Later, he marries, has children, becomes a successful optometrist, and also,…..is abducted by aliens and taken to the planet Tralfamadore. This story reads as a biography where Billy is unstuck in time. He experiences all the events of his life in a seemingly random way, with no idea what will be next. Something might happen in Dresden, which reminds him of his optometry job (even though it is in the future), and the setting switches to that place. This constant change of setting goes along with what the Tralfamadorians tell Billy of existence: that there is no free will and that everything simultaneously exists. In a sense time does not flow: the aliens experience more dimensions that humans seem to, and they can look into the future to see what will happen. Actually, the point is that they don’t have to look into the future; they see the future just like they see the present and the past. It all exists.

This is a satire about free will and fate. It is one of the most-often banned books. In 1972, a judge declared it: “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian.” I wasn’t super excited about the story as I was reading it — I was trying to keep track of everything and understand what was going on. But now, after having time to think about it, and actually after writing this blog post, it is starting to grow on me. I need a little more time to process it, but very glad I read it finally!

Some quotations:

“There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?”
“How nice — to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.”
“Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.”
“Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.”
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