This week: Stoical sayings, Something new in painting & more.
The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual, by Ward Farnsworth (David R. Godine): It is curious that two of the most practical—“practical” in the sense of “pragmatic”—ancient schools of philosophy are known in English by words that now mean something contrary, if not opposite, to what they originally meant. When we say of someone today that he is “epicurean,” we mean that he is a slave to pleasure. When we say that someone is “stoic,” we meant that he is stalwart in the face of suffering and adversity.
And yet a follower of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 B.C.) was chiefly concerned with achieving ataraxia, i.e., the absence of pain, not pleasure. (Pleasure in most ordinary senses he would regard as a snare if not an illusion.) And the deeply cognate philosophy of Stoicism, named after the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium—not to be confused with Zeno of Elea, the clever chap who came up with all those paradoxes—was not about being “stoical” in our modern sense but rather about being disillusioned and indeed somewhat distanced from common objects of desire in order to avoid being consumed by them. (Fun fact: the word “stoic” comes from the Greek word “stoa,” “porch,” the place from which Zeno, 333–264 B.C., declaimed his teaching, just as Aristotle had his Lyceum and Plato his Academy.)
In The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual, Ward Farnsworth, the Dean of the University of Texas School of Law, has assembled a sort of chrestomathy of stoical (in the old sense) sayings and aperçus. Stoicism is above all a practical philosophy, a philosophy that revolves around the treacherous metabolism of desire. You think you want X, but when you get it, you find you are unsatisfied and want Y, or Xx2 instead. Therefore—what? Stoicism helps you—and it really does help you—answer that interrogative.
In this dramaturgy, three Roman philosophers have starring roles. Seneca (4 B.C.–65 A.D.), Nero’s tutor, secretary, and then his victim; Epictetus (55–135), born a slave in Greece but active later in Rome; and Marcus Aurelius (121–180), as emperor, the opposite in fortune to Epictetus. There are many supporting characters, from Diogenes Laertius and Plutarch to Montaigne, Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, and Nietzsche. Professor Farnsworth (the author also of engaging books on Classical English Rhetoric and Classical English Metaphor) has arranged the book under a dozen topics: “Externals, “Perspective,” “Death,” “Desire,” “Wealth and Pleasure,” “Adversity,” “Virtue,” etc. After a wide-ranging introduction, he offers brief headnotes to accompany a smorgasbord of quotations from his sources meant to illustrate the central stoic teaching on the announced topic. The result is a charming book, perfect for dipping, in which the calm and settling wisdom of the stoics shines forth with bracing clarity.
Farnsworth is lucky in his publisher. For decades, David Godine has produced some of the most beautiful books of any commercial press in memory. This is no exception. My one cavil is that the book lacks an index. It makes up for it, however, in the beautifully legible typography and sheer wealth of reference that Farnsworth has marshaled. This is a book any thoughtful person will be glad to have along as a companion for an extended weekend or, indeed, for that protracted journey we call life. —RK
“David Hockney: Something New in Painting (and Photography) [and even Printing],” at Pace Gallery (through May 12): Through his recent retrospective at Tate Britain, the Centre Pompidou, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the painter David Hockney may have surprised even his detractors with a survey that proved to be as deep as it was wide. Perhaps most surprising was the octogenarian’s innovative latest work that employed shaped canvases and enveloping perspectives. Now at Pace Gallery, Hockney continues his experiments of color, angle, and light with “David Hockney: Something New in Painting (and Photography) [and even Printing],” an exhibition that delivers on its promise(s). —JP
The Artemis Quartet at Carnegie Hall (April 10): One of my favorite string quartets is coming to Carnegie Hall this week: the Artemis String Quartet, whose 2012 release of Schubert quartets was one of the best chamber albums of this decade, will perform an ambitiously broad program downstairs in Zankel on Tuesday night. Beethoven’s lively Op. 18, No. 3 starts the evening on solid footing at the end of the Classical period, before the recital moves through the tangled mysteries of Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2 and ends in the Romantic middle, with Schumann’s stormy Op. 41, No. 1. It’s like a survey in miniature of the chamber repertoire, given by one of today’s finest quartets. —ECS
CounterPointe 6, Norte Maar, at the Actors Fund Arts Center in Brooklyn (April 13–15): CounterPointe, the annual dance platform pairing female choreographers with visual artists, has become a highlight of the alternative-art spring season and a showcase for Brooklyn talent. Organized by Norte Maar’s Julia Gleich, the sixth iteration of the creative pas de deux returns to Brooklyn’s Actors Fund Arts Center this weekend with artist Audra Wolowiec paired with choreographer Zhong-Jing Fang, Lindsay Packer with Dasha Schwartz, Melissa Dadourian with Courtney Cochran, Priscilla Fusco with konverjdans, Jeri Coppola with Eryn Renee Young, Liz Atz with Donna Salgado, and Karen Schifano with Julia Gleich. —JP
From the archive: “The achievement of Ralph Ellison” by James Tuttleton (December 1995). On the career of Ralph Ellison and The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, edited by John F. Callahan.
From the current issue: “Schiller’s bell” by Michael J. Lewis. On learning to memorize Friedrich Schiller’s “Das Lied von der Glocke.”