Friday, February 27, 2009
© Robert Harris 2006
I would not have expected to find a novel set in ancient Rome, nor would I expect the author of a mystery novel set in a world where Nazi Germany emerged victorious in the second world war to have penned it -- but here it is, and here Robert Harris has penned it. This is a novel set in the last days of the Old Republic -- before the dark times, before the Empire. The novel is told in the first person, from the perspective of "Tiro": slave/servant of Marcus Tullius Cicero, known chiefly by his last name. In a way, this is a biographical novel about Cicero, although it starts when he is a young politician in his twenties and culminates in his election to the consularship. The story takes us through several decades of political change in Rome, although it is not one long and fluid story: Tiro, addressing the reader directly, writes that he has no wish to bore the reader with a retelling of hum-drum events. He focuses, rather, on three very memorable and life-altering episodes in Cicero's political life.
I found the book completely compelling: not only does Harris create drama out of stuffy-sounding letters about legal incidents, but he makes the idea of Rome come alive. Its politics, its sights and sounds -- he gives the city life. Tiro's narration holds the story together and offers us a different perspective on Rome. He is aware of the plight of slaves, the existence of an entire Republic beyond the walls of Rome and the personal interests of its ruling class. He shows us Cicero when he triumphs and Cicero when he badly misjudges situations. This is excellent drama -- but beyond fiction, it is historical fiction. Here, too, Harris comes through. His depictions match what I know of the period, especially in terms of philosophy.
I enjoyed the book immensely, and am pleased to know that it is only the first book in a planned trilogy about the life of Cicero.
"The art of life is to deal with problems as they arise, rather than to destroy one's spirit by worrying about them too far in advance." - Cicero, as quoted in the book. He also commented that "Sometimes one must begin a fight in order to find out how to win it."
© Rev. Oliver "Buzz" Thomas, 2007
I do not subscribe to the Christian faith, but I've heard of this book through one podcast or another and decided to read it out of curiosity. The book is written by a Baptist minister and concerns ten controversial issues in the Christianity -- issues that most Christian ministers would rather not visit too much. The ten issues are:
- How it all began
- Why we're here
- The Bible: what is it?
- How To Please God
- Other Religions
- Death and Beyond
- How it all Ends
Despite his Baptistisity, "Buzz" Thomas is quite open to interpretating the Bible. He begins with a fairly standard "Science and religion aren't in conflict" argument, which on some levels works and which fails on others. As I understand the conservative Christian take on sin and redemption, there were once two real people named Adam and Eve who were corrupted by the spirit-thing of Sin, and that the Rules of the Game dictated that their Sin would be passed on to their ancestors, leading to all sorts of unpleasantness. Then, several thousand years later, YHWH decided to help we poor mortal schmucks out by sending us Jesus, his son/personal avatar, depending on your personal interpretation of the scriptures. The Rules of the Game dictate that sacrifices help out with the Sin thing, so YHWH allowed himself/his son-self to be killed, thus making various things possible -- again, depending on your interpretation. The possibility the conservative tradition embraces is that the spirit of YHWH can enter you and you can overcome temptation. Note you "can", because most people would rather do what they like and chant "Not Perfect, Just Forgiving"
The point of this is that if human knowledge tells you a literalist interpretation of Genesis is flawed, and the basic premise of most Christianity is built on that original sin idea, then the entire system is going to collapse unless the believer is sporting an impression ability to ignore the obvious or compartmentalize things. Without that magic "Sin", the entire religion erodes away to Bible-Jesus being a moral teacher on the level of Buddha -- and at that level, dogma is going to keep evaporating away until religion has just become religious philosophy. I am perfectly okay with that, but most people aren't. They want their religion to be a Religion, something that gives them magic things like eternal life. Moral teachers can't give you heaven -- but God-magic can.
If you take away biblical literalism, you can how the book develops. The Bible is no longer the Word of God: it's a book written by men with agendas and translated by men with agendas. It portrays a primitive society that is still developing civilization, not one that is perfect so long as it is obeying the Word of God. "The Bible" becomes a collection of history, myth, poetry, and laws. Pleasing God becomes not obeying rules, but being nice to people. Women are no longer seen as through Paul's eyes (as subservient to males as males are to YHWH), but through the eyes of the 21st century. Hell? Just a myth,"designed to scare and control primitive people"*. He doesn't really comment on destinies: he just dismisses the idea of a torturous hell.
This book is a work of liberal Christianity, and the liberal Christians adore it. In a way, Thomas shows how progressive and ennobling religion can be if freed from dogma and superstition-- but progressive and ennobling religion is not what humanity wants. If that's what we wanted, the Unitarian Universalist church would be one of the largest. People want strength and security, and the easiest way to attempt to get it is to console oneself with uncompromising dogma. The inner strength of idealism, while serving philosophers like myself and liberal Christians like Thomas well, is not realized by most people in my experience. I wish more Christians thought as Thomas did: the United States would be so much more pleasant. Sadly, though, I think Thomas is quite literally preaching to the choir.
* A phrase not from Thomas, but from George Carlin's "Ten Commandments" sketch.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
© Thomas Cahill
This week I continued in Thomas Cahill's Hinges of History series with The Gifts of the Jews. Rather than focusing on a Judaism changed by Hellenism, Cahill chooses to look at the ancient Hebrews, the people responsible for what Christians call the "Old Testament". I'm quite familiar with the Hebrew scriptures, since I was raised in a strictly literalist Christian sect and was instructed in all of the glories and horrors of the Old Testament as a teenager. For a number of years a teacher of mine took our "young adult" class through the Hebrew scriptures, paying special attention to the violence and arbitrariness of YHWH. My teacher's expressed purpose in doing this was to emphasize that God isn't a touchy-feely type: he's a God, and he'll put you in your place if you dare question him. For instance, one fellow named Korah questioned Moses' ability to lead the Hebrews. YHWH opens a pit in the Earth and all those pesky rabble-rousers fell to their deaths*.
Those of you who did not receive such an education may not be aware that the Hebrews are supposedly fathered by a man named Abram, or "Avram" as Cahill renders it -- and he, according to the Hebrew scriptures, was called out of the city of Ur. Ur being a Sumerian city, Cahill begins the book by examining Sumerian culture. He is particularly focused on attempting to portray Sumerian culture as being fixated on the idea of cycles -- that they were a people who saw life as a constant wheel of life, death, and rebirth where nothing mattered and all was futile in the end: where ideas like progress were alien. After spending time setting up this subject, he then introduces the story of Abram's departure from Ur as a revolutionary idea. The verses in the scriptures say that YHWH spoke to Abram and told him to leave Sumeria and go to Canaan, and "Abram went". Cahill grows very excited about those two words, seeing them as an utter departure from everything in Sumerian culture. Not, not being very familiar with Sumerian culture, I can't make an educated comment on this -- but raving about "and Abram went" for several paragraph strikes me as reading a little too much into the text.
Cahill's subject in this book is the whole of the "Old Testament", although it should be noted that he is only concerned with the OT as rendered in the Christian canon. Cahill has to weave his thesis through (or derive it out, depending on your credulity) thousands of years of literature and folk history. He paints a picture of an evolving "Jewish" worldview that gives birth -- in his mind -- to the ideas of adventure, history, progress, and the individual. Having finished the book I remain skeptical of this thesis. He renders to the Jews the same naked worship Edith Hamilton granted the Athenians in The Echo of Greece, which I found distracting. His entire series is about cultures that have enabled, guarded, or fermented changes in the western psyche, what he calls "transition points", and that is the lens through which he views the Hebrew scriptures. He's not a literalist by any means, but it seemed to me as if he was attempting to force the body of Hebrew scriptures to wear his narrative, rather than creating a narrative based on the scriptures. I cannot comment on the validity of his idea that the Jewish worldview was the first to spurn a cyclical worldview in favor of a progressive one. I can comment in an informed way when he says that ideas like the individual and history are Jewish ideas: my knowledge of classical Greece runs contrary to that. What of Herodotus? What of Athens? He seems to ignore them, just as he ignored Islamic society in How the Irish Saved Civilization. I understand the need to focus on particular contributions, but they must be viewed within a context of "overall" contributions so that the casual reader does not gain the impression that the Irish (or the Jews, in this book) are solely responsible for important parts of the western tradition. One interesting note, though: he takes the same romantic view of the late-age Hebrew prophets as did Isaac Asimov, both seeming them as the progressive populists of their day, using dogma to effect positive social changes. When a Catholic and a humanist have the same interpretation of the text, perhaps I should revisit said texts and consider the matter again.
As usual, Cahill presents a very readable narrative -- but I found this one lacking in credibility. The ending chapter is particularly disappointing, conveying to me the idea that the Hebrews and Judaism are magic. This is not an exaggeration, as he uses the word 'miraculous' to describe how wonderful they are. I will continue in the Hinges of History series, however, as despite this book he has earned my respect and I find his thoughts provoking.
*Verse 32 is the pit verse.
Monday, February 23, 2009
© 1974 Walpola Rahula
I'm a member of a philosophy group on YahooGroups, and this book came up in discussion. Since my knowledge of Buddhism is quite limited, I decided to indulge in a little literacy-expanding this week. The work was introduced to me as an introduction to Buddhism, which seems appropriate given how little I know. It's famous enough that it has merited its own Wikipedia entry. Rahula begins by introducing the reader to the beginning of Buddhism and to the Buddhist mind, devoting a chapter to its ideals of tolerance, conditionality, compassion, and so on. An interesting element is that the author holds that doubt must be vanquished from the mind for someone to use a truth. I disagree: I think something can be "true enough" for our purposes.
Having introduced Buddhism, Rahula then deals with the foundational principles of Buddhism, the "Four Noble Truths". He devotes a chapter to each one. The concepts he deals with did not originate in an English-speaking culture or into a culture that English derives from, so often he has to use Hindi words or make up English approximations. He then examines the Eight-Fold Path (the practical side of the philosophy). The next two chapters are on specific topics in Buddhism, namely the doctrine of no-self/soul and meditation. According to Rahula, human beings in Buddhism are seen as not having an exterior Self, but I don't understand how that holds true given reincarnation. Rahula tried to explain it in the section of the Four Noble Truths, but so help me I couldn't really understand. The chapter on Meditation is quite free of mystical terminology. The last chapter addresses Buddhism in the modern world. Interestingly, the revised version of the book supplements the text of the book with selected texts from the Buddhist "canon" (if there is such a thing). I found parts of the text to be quite interesting and other parts not so much.
The book is apparently quite well-received: the people who review it on Amazon are nuts about it and recommend it as the introductory book to Buddhism for beginners and students of comparative religion. Having never read any other introductions to Buddhism, I can't say the same. It was sometimes thought-provoking and sometimes confusing for me, but in general I enjoyed the read. Here are a few quotations from the book I found interesting enough to write down.
"There is no unmoving mover behind the movement. It is only movement. It is not correct to say that life is moving, but life is movement itself. Life and movement are not two different things. In other words, there is no thinker behind the thought. Thought itself is the thinker. If you remove the thought, there is no thinker to be found."
"Two ideas are psychologically deep-rooted in man: self-protection and self-preservation. For self-protection man has created God, on whom he depends for his own protecting safety, and security, just as a child depends on its parent. For self-preservation man has conceived the idea of an immortal Soul or Atman, which will live eternally."
(From a collection of Siddhartha Gautama's sayings)
"Better is it truly to conquer oneself than to conquer others. Neither a god, nor an angel, nor Mara, nor Brahma, could turn into defeat the victory of a person such as this who is self-mastered and ever-restrained in conduct."
"Make haste in doing good; restrain your mind from evil. Whosoever is slow in doing good, his mind delights in evil."
- Mythology, Edith Hamilton
- The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, Peter Quammen
- Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, Thomas Cahill
Next I read (belatedly) The Reluctant Mr. Darwin. I intended to read it for Darwin Week, but alas! My sense of time is not what it once was and I forgot to check the book out early enough to have it read. This is a very readable Darwin biography that concentrates on him and the development of The Origin of Species, beginning with the return of the Beagle to England. The development of the theory takes place over four chapters, while the sixth gives a history of The Origin of Species with comment on its style. The last chapters are of Darwin's decline and death. It is quite brief, and chiefly of interest to those who are interested in the making of the theory itself and not so much interested in his early life.
I ended the week by continuing in Thomas Cahill's Hinges of History series, this week reading Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter. Re-reading may or may not be more appropriate, as I remember picking this book up five or so years ago. The book is a survey of classical Greek history, beginning in the mists of the past with The Illiad and ending with a Greece that is assimilating into Roman culture. Along the way, Cahill attempts to demonstrate how Greeks ideas have influenced our perceptions of "How to Fight", "How to Feel", "How to Party", "How to Rule", "How to Think", and "How to See". Cahill also manages to make these topics fit into a chronological framework. He also introduces each chapter with a story out of Greek mythology to convey to the reader the sense that we are only glimpsing fragments of who the Greeks were: we cannot understand them in their wholeness. "History must be learned in pieces," he comments in his very first sentence to the reader.
Pick of the Week: Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, Thomas Cahill
- The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill
- Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome, Robert Harris
- 10 Things Your Minister Wants To Tell You (But Can't Because He Needs the Job), Oliver Thomas
- What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula
Saturday, February 21, 2009
© 2003 Thomas Cahill
303 pages, including index
I believe I picked this book up years ago, but never finished it. Very little seemed familiar as I read through the book this week, so if I did read it I assume I did not make it very far. As you may be able to imagine from the title, this addition to the Hinges of History series focuses on the Greeks, part of the western heritage -- arguably the most important part of the western heritage. While the book's contents span the Mycenaeans to the late Hellenes, much of the content comes from the golden age of Athens (which Edith Hamilton wrote about in The Echo of Greece). Cahill's chapters weave the story of how the Greeks taught us "How to Fight", "How to Feel", "How to Party", "How to Rule", "How to Think", and "How to See". Cahill also manages to make these topics fit into a chronological framework: "How to Fight and How to Feel" both take as their primary sources Homeric legends, while "How to See" is set after the rise of Christianity and the absorption of Greece into the Roman empire. The transformation of the Greco-Roman world into the medieval world is the subject of his last chapter, and he manages to advertise for his other books as well. Cahill begins each chapter by retelling a story of myth. His motive is to convey to the reader the sense that we are only glimpsing fragments of who the Greeks were: we cannot understand them in their wholeness. "History must be learned in peaces," he comments in his very first sentence to the reader.
Most of what I have said of Cahill's previous works must be repeated here: he writes well. His narrative is neither overly wordy nor simplistic. He carries on a conversation with the reader, addressing us personally. Whenever his own biases slip into the narrative, the reader may recognize them as such without mistaking them as commonly held opinions. (He does misrepresent Epicureanism and Stoicism at the end, but commenting on this rather strikes me as nitpicking. It's not as if there are people out there who would embrace Epicureanism if only they hadn't been dissuaded by Cahill's off-hand comment.) The plates he includes are well chosen: Greek art could be quite exquisite, although I confess I don't see the draw of drinking goblets illustrated with orgies. I think he is successful in his goal of portraying the Greeks as a people who lived -- and not simply as the idealized forefathers of western civilization. They are represented here in all of their triumphs and failings. I must recommend the book to those interested in the period.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
© 2006 Peter Quammen
304 pages, including chronology, bibliography, notes, and index.
I intended to read this for the week of Charles Darwin's birthday (12 February), but forgot that I would need to order the book in advance. I've read two Darwin biographies in the past, so I was familiar with much of the content here. Quammen's approach is slightly different: rather than focus on Darwin's upbringing and trip aboard the Beagle, he begins the book immediately after Darwin steps foot back on Britain: his first chapter is titled "Home and Dry". The development of his theory -- evolution through means of natural selection -- unfolds in four chapters: "The Kiwi's Egg", "The Fabric Falls", "Point of Attachment", and "A Duck for Darwin". The titles are quite apt, and "The Kiwis's Egg" is almost poetic: the author explains that Darwin's theory burdened him the same way that a kiwi bird's oversized egg burdens it.
In the sixth chapter, His Abominable Volume, Quammen looks at The Origin of Species itself, examining its contents, style, and changes throughout its various editions. Following this, Quammen tracks evolution's development through the two hundred years that follow with "The Fittest Idea". The last chapter focuses on the declining years of Darwin's life and his death. This, like Darwin, his Daughter, and Human Evolution is a brief but very readable narrative. So far Cyril Agon's Charles Darwin: the Naturalist Who Started a Scientific Revolution has been the most thorough. This volume is more about Darwin's development of evolution and less about Darwin proper, though.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
© 1942 Edith Hamilton
In the past, I have both read books by Edith Hamilton and tried to read books on Greco-Roman mythology. I have never succeeded in finishing a mythology book before my interest in the subject waned, but this week I was able to do so. The book is fairly straightforward: after introducing us to our cast of characters (gods, demigods, Titans, giants, and miscellaneous creatures), Hamilton retells the various stories that constitute the Greek mythology. She organizes them by theme ("Tales of Love", "The Trojan War", etc) and tells the reader which sources she is relying on for her narratives. This pleased me. Those who are more familar with the various Greek and Roman authors may read more into her choice of authors. Take, for instance, this comment from a Lawrance Benarbo at Amazon.com: "I appreciate Hamilton's choice to avoid relying on Ovid, for while the 'Metamorphoses' is the most comprehensive ancient text dealing with the classical myths, Ovid is an unbeliever. For Hamilton the writings of Homer, Hesiod and Pindar are more abbreviated in terms of providing details for the myths, but at least they take the tales seriously."
Curiously, Hamilton also attaches two brief chapters on Norse mythology to the end of the book. I'm really not sure why, other than Norse mythology being somewhat connected to western civilization. She doesn't explain why, but given that our days of the week reflect the old Norse gods (Tir's Day, Woden's Day, Thor's Day, and Freya's Day), I take my own explanation as the most likely. It was a pleasant read, taking me back to both childhood and my introduction to western literature class in my freshman year of college.
Monday, February 16, 2009
- How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill
- Deer Hunting with Jesus, Joe Bageant
- Shatterpoint, Matthew Stover
- A World Waiting to be Born, M. Scott Peck
I began this week by continuing in Thomas Cahill's entertaining Hinges of History series. In focusing on transition points of history, Cahill now addresses the oft-forgotten contributions of the Irish to preserving the western heritage during a time of turbulence. He introduces us to the waning Roman Empire, and with him we watch Europe's transformation into early feudalism as uncouth barbarians wander around sacking cities and generally being poor neighbors. After elaborating on what was lost, he takes us to Ireland, to a Christian church that has followed a different path than the Roman church, to monasteries where pagan literature is copied freely, without being subjected to censorship. Cahill's book covers the growth of Irish Christianity and its influence on the newly stabilizing Europe, but sadly it does not end on a happy note: at the council of Whitby, Irish Christianity is rejected in favor of Roman Catholicism, and the coming of the Vikings will lead to the destruction of the monasteries that kept the western flame alive. Cahill writes well, and the book was a pleasure to read.
Next I indulged in a little science fiction by Matthew Stover titled Shatterpoint. The book is set very soon after the Battle of Geonosis in the Star Wars universe, and tells the story of Mace Windu. Master Windu is forced to join the "My Padawan-who-is-like-family turned to the Dark Side, and only I can save him/her from him/herself" club. Windo journeys to the jungle world of Haruun Kal, where the conflict between the Republic and the Seperatists* is being fought between two bitter guerrilla armies in a science fiction version of the Vietnam Conflict. While the book is primarily a combat novel, the first part of it does give the reader insight into Mace Windu's character.
Following this, I read Deer Hunting With Jesus, a brief book about the class war in the United States. Author Joe Bageant hails from the poor white working class of America -- the one clinging to its guns and bibles -- and tries to explain to his liberal friends and associates just who these people are who adore Sarah Palin so. He predicts the current financial crisis while writing on guns, folk religion, violence, healthcare, and the false allure of the Republican party to this industrial base. The book is funny and sad at a times. Since I'm from the same class as Bageant, I was already familar with the content, but those who do not share that background may find it to be quite thought provoking.
I finished the week with A World Waiting to Be Born, a psychiatric analysis and prescribed treatment of American society. Author M. Scott Peck sees the decline of civility as the source of the world's woes. He defines it as behavior conducive to organizational health, and defines organizations so loosley that marriages, families, and work groups are considered organizations. In the first third of the book, he hammers out a thought-system that involves meditation, deity-centered ethics, and a search for greater empathetic awareness (he calls it "Group Consciousness", which sounds either New Age or Borg to me) of one's fellows. I can't say I agreed with everything he said (subscribing to the humanist ethics he maligns), but it was definitely an interesting read.
Pick of the Week: How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill
Quotation of the Week: "Outside of [child-rearing], the only other valid reason to marry is for the friction." - M. Scott Peck, amusing my occasionally sophomoric mind unintentionally.
- On the Good Life: Selected Writings from Cicero, Cicero
- The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill
- Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome, Robert Harris
- 10 Things Your Minister Wants To Tell You (But Can't Because He Needs the Job), Oliver Thomas
* Do you suppose if they won, they'd be known as the Rebellion and the republic as the Empire?
Sunday, February 15, 2009
© 1993 M. Scott Peck
"Society is sick", declares author M. Scott Peck by way of introduction to his book A World Waiting to be Born. Peck is a psychiatrist and author who attempts to take the methods of his craft and apply them to society at large, reminding me of Erich Fromm's work. Divided into three parts, Peck's work redefines "civility" and explores its practice in both the home and business. The first third of the book is conceptual, as Peck hammers out the aspects of what is wrong and what needs to be fixed. The remaining two parts of the book see his lessons applied in the home and business. The first part of the book was the most interesting ,at least for me, because Peck addresses a multitude of issues. He attempts to build a thought-system of civility, which he defines as behavior conducive to building and maintaining healthy organizations. His use of organization is so broad that "marriage" counts, as do small work crews. The family and businesses are seen by Peck as the basis for the rest of society, and this is why he concentrates on them. The thought-system he builds involves god-centered ethics, mind-emptying mediation, unconditional love, and "true" consciousness of the real self and of one's role within groups. His aim is to improve "psychospiritual health", which is a combination of the obvious factors.
It's an interesting read for me, without reservation. I did disagree with parts of what he said -- for instance, that humanist ethics don't hold up in hard times. Some of what he wrote, while interesting, is hard to classify. For instance, in the family section he wrote about myths that the family structure brings with it, and he provides anecdotes about families and couples he counseled, using them to examine "civil" behavior. As I do not read much psychiatry, I cannot comment on the validity of his analyses except to say that they didn't sound too objectionable to me. His interpretations of elements I am familiar with seem wrong to me. Take, for instance, his comment on the opening chapters of Genesis, where he writes that for a book of legend, its first chapter portrays a stunningly accurate account of how the universe came into being, with the sun forming first and then life evolving. The problem with this is -- besides being a metaphor that's gone too far -- is that the Sun didn't come first in the bible. It came after the plants and so on.
It's a strange book -- thought-provoking, sometimes objectionable, and sometimes confused. In general, I enjoyed reading the book. I only lost interest in the chapters on organizational behavior in business.
Friday, February 13, 2009
© 2004 Matthew Stover
Set very soon after the conclusion of Attack of the Clones, Shatterpoint is an Extended Universe Star Wars novel centered around the character of Mace Windu and a personal trial of his at the beginning of the Clone War. A former padawan who was almost a daughter to him has vanished under questionable circumstances. She, like many Jedi knights, had been sent to a Seperatist world to stir up trouble for the Confederacy of Independent Systems and allow the Republic time to get on its feet after being thrust into an unexpected war -- but there are hints that she has gone over to the Dark Side.
Such is the way of padawans and Jedi masters. I sometimes wonder if there is a Jedi master in the Star Wars universe who has not lost a padawan to the dark side. It's obviously a good source of drama, but at this point I think it's overused. The wayward padawan in this novel, Depa, has been sent to the jungle world of Haruun Kal to organize resistance against the Confederacy -- and Mace takes it upon himself to rescue her from the darkness she may have fallen into. The beginning of the book is strong, allowing us to see the Republic attempting to transition into a wartime government. The author gives us insight into the character of Windu and his relationship with Chancellor Palpatine. Once the book's setting shifts to Haruun Kal, Windu has to struggle with questions of morality and ethics in wartime. Stover does a good job of showing the stresses war places on peacekeeping Jedi who have been thrust into the position of being generals. The combat situation on Haruun Kal reminds me of the Vietnam War, and the author paints the political situation well. The last two hundred pages of the book are expressly military.
The beginning of the book was very strong, as said, but after the two-hundred page park my interest began to wane. This book was the first book I began reading this past week, but it was almost the last one I finished, largely because I couldn't stay interested. Even Windu's self-conflict became tiresome after a while: it seemed like gilded drama, if that makes any sense. It was overdone. Books have varying appeals, though, and I don't imagine that my response is a universal one.
© Joe Bageant 2007
267 pages + acknowledgments
One of the benefits of living in a university setting is that I’m constantly surrounded by people who are reading idea-centered books. One such book came up in my sociological theory class last week while we discussed Marxism. By Marxism, I’m referring to Marx’s historical, sociological, and economic analyses -- not Communist or Bolshevist governments. While discussing class consciousness and class conflict, someone brought up Deer Hunting with Jesus, a book written about the poor white working class of the United States, better known as “rednecks”. Author Joe Bageant is a redneck, albeit one who has become something of an alien to the very culture in which he was raised. He and I are alike in this regard: both of us were raised in this same class, and I am intimately familiar with every aspect of the culture he addresses, and as such the book was particularly relevant to me.
Who are the people of the poor white working class? Why do they vote the way they do? Why is their culture the way it is? Why is their life growing progressively worse, and why are they oblivious to this and even making the matter worse? These are the questions that Bageant faced when he moved back to the town in which he was raised, and those are the questions he tries to answer for the benefit of his fellow progressives who grew up in different settings and who don’t understand this base of the Republican party. It doesn’t come off as patronizing: it’s more of a resigned “What do we do about this?” attitude.
In the book Bageant writes about the Republican party’s appeal to poor whites, gun control, housing problems (in which he predicts our current debacle), religious matters, violence, healthcare, and “the American hologram”. He’s humorous in some ways, saddening in others. In some chapters he only explains the issue: in others, he explains the issues and chides Democrats for their mistakes about the issue at hand. This is particularly the case in “Valley of the Gun: Black Powder and Buckskin in Heartland America”. He tries to explain “this is why your actions are having this effect”. He paints a picture that is sad, tragic, sometimes horrifying, and sometimes. If you want to understand this part of America, I recommend the book to you -- but you may find it more disturbing than funny. You can read a sample of Beagant’s portrayal here.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
© 1995 Thomas Cahill
230 pages plus bibliography, chronology, and index.
Last week I began the "Hinges of History" by Thomas Cahill. Cahill writes that his interest lies in the transition points of history, and indeed what I've read of him so far does focus on change-inducing elements of society. This week I read How the Irish Saved Civilization, a book I have passed countless times in my home library but have never read until this week. Be begins by acknowledging the apparent strangeness of associating the Irish with civilization, and asks "How real is history?" He points out that western history has until recently paid no notice to the role of non-Europeans and women: it has been until the last century the story of white men. With that in mind, he asks us to acknowledge that the positive role played by ignored people like the Irish and by scorned people like the Catholic Church might be similarly overlooked.
Well, I'll grant him that, and easily -- although claims of belittlement made by "The Church" are hard to take seriously. Given that his content focuses on Ireland's role after the fall of Rome, Cahill logically begins with the fall of Rome. Rome and the classical tradition actually merit two chapters, and Cahill writes pretty well. I now understand a little more of how Rome's economic prosperity began to rot away and consequence, understand how Frankish governments were able to rise. The very beginning is a little slow, as Cahill tries to show the decay of active culture by dissecting a late-Roman poet's works. He tries to convey to the reader of what Europe is like in those years after the western Empire had receded into Italy before vanishing altogether: dangerous, wrought with petty conflicts and touring barbarians who gleefully put to the torch the Roman libraries. He also examines the role of the Church in attempting to hold society together.
Next he moves to "Unholy Ireland" and establishes a background: who are these people who he's devoted a book to? Here he makes some leaps in logic I'm not comfortable with. You may have heard of Lindow Man: he is one of the "bog bodies", or mummies occupying various bogs of the British isles and one of our main sources of information on what the pre-Roman Britons were like. Cahill wrote that Lindow Man and his brethren were willing sacrifices, that their serene composure is proof of this. I am not convinced. Even if the bog bodies do have "serene looks" on their faces, that doesn't mean they were willing victims: they could've been intoxicated or drugged.
Next Cahill tells the story of Ireland's conversion to Christianity and writes on what the Irish church was like. In his view, the Irish church were more in touch with mysticism and pagan traditions, less concerned with authority and overall more relaxed and less pretentious. This meshes fairly well with what I learned in English History I, although we didn't really discussion Irish mysticism. (It was, after all, "English History".) Cahill tells the story of the development of the Irish faith, centered around monasteries and guided by local priests. He actually makes me interested in monastery life. Given that the Irish were not so scornful of all things "pagan", they willingly copied copies of manuscripts they received -- even if they did were heretical texts or pagan philosophies. Then, as Europe begins to find some stability (just in time for the Vikings), Cahill tells of us about the "White Martyrdom", of Irish monks leaving their pleasant little island for Christ's sake, to reestablish the classical tradition in Europe.
The book ends with the arrival of the Vikings, who are Chaotic Evil and delight in putting quaint Irish monasteries to the torch. We read of the Irish monks burying manuscripts and metalwork or sending them to save havens inland, only to see Vikings settle in various parts of the British isles (where Irish monasteries had expanded). Here Celtic Britain transitions into Anglo-Saxon Britain, and at the Council of Whitby Irish-style religion is replaced by more Roman-style religion, thus ending the Irish influence on western civilization.
The book is well written and rarely boring. Cahill does concentrate on the Irish role while ignoring whatever classical activity lingered around the Mediterranean through wealthy Italian merchant-families and Islamic scholars. This is understandable for a book that is expressly written about the Irish, but it may lead casual readers to thinking that only the Irish were involved. While he did make some leaps in logic, generally the book matched with what I know, and I would recommend the read to anyone interested in the subject. I will be continuing in the series.
Friday, February 6, 2009
Books this Update:
- Homeward Bound, Harry Turtledove
- Mysteries of the Middle Ages, Thomas Cahill
- The Book of Ecclesiastes, Tremper Longman III
I started with Harry Turtledove's conclusion to the Worldwar-Colonization series, Homeward Bound. While being the final book in this setting, it is set apart from the two series that came before it. A few principle viewpoint characters from the two series journey to the capital world of the Empire. While some of them take in the sights and experience Lizard culture, Ambassador Sam Yeager dickers with the Emperor and his staff over Earth's face. Sam wants the United States and humanity to be taken seriously. Humorously, the Lizards do take humanity seriously -- but not in the way Yeager wants them to. They see humanity as arrogant upstarts who are nevertheless very dangerous. The Lizards wrestle with the question of whether or not to extinguish humanity and Earth before they grow so powerful that they can completely destroy the Empire. It is a credit to Turtledove's characterization that the reader can sympathize with the Lizards even as they contemplate genocide. I found the book enjoyable, although the diplomatic scenes did grow a bit tiresome.
Next I read a gorgeous piece of work by Thomas Cahill, titled Mysteries of the Middle Ages. Cahill is using an archaic sense of "mystery" in that he uses it to refer to religious rites. He attempts to establish the Church and its traditions as a source of distinctly western art, feminism, and science. The value of this book isn't that he proves this (at least in regard to feminism and science) but that he does give the medieval era more depth than it usually is seen as having. Sourcing feminism from the cult of the virgin Mary is...something of a stretch, at least for me, as is positing that scientific questions were born of the mystery of the Eucharist. (Alchemy and attempts to understand the "Great Chain of Being" are far more likely sources for me.) You don't need to be convinced of Cahill's point to enjoy this book, though. Reading it introduces the reader to a wealth of interesting characters of history. Some are more interesting than others, but they existed. They were real people, not two-dimensional archetypes on a deck of playing cards. The narrative flows well, and adding to the readers' enjoyment is the fact that this is a beautiful book: the font, the way pictures and foot notes are set directly into the text and somehow not breaking the flow of everything, and margin art all add enormously to the value of the book. It's not just fun to read: it's fun to look at. The book itself is artwork. I enjoyed the book immensely.
Lastly, I read a commentary on the Hebrew text Ecclesiastes. I'm interested in philosophy, including religious philosophy, and came interested in learning more about Ecclesiastes after I read Asimov's Guide to the Bible. The book of Ecclesiastes is highly interesting, given that its author's entire theme runs opposed to the themes of the Christian New Testament. The author of Ecclesiastes writes (repeatedly) that life is pointless and arbitrary. Wealth, romance, the pursuit of knowledge -- none of these things saves you from death, or even being mistreated in lif. God seems to wreak havoc on the lives of the just and grant to the wicked favors: there seems, to the author of the original text, no rhyme or reason to life. He concludes that we might as well as just enjoyed ourselves as best we can while obeying the king and God.
I wanted to fit this into a broader context, which is why I checked out The Book of Ecclesiastes by Tremper Longman III. His commentary accomplished this somewhat, but as I learned from the inside cover, his point is to fit this into the general Christian scheme of things. How do you reconcile the original author's resigned attitude toward life and the unknown quality of the "afterlife" with the promise of eternal life in the New Testament? For most of the book, Longman examines the original Hebrew phrases and shows how particular translations have tried to bring about the same meaning. He explains allusions and so on. He keeps his personal opinions largely to himself, and does not try to reinterpret anything until the last paragraph, where he concludes that Jesus is the answer to meaningless.
I never got that particular memo, but I enjoyed the book -- for the most part.Ecclesiastes isn't as depressing as my description of it here might have led an unfamiliar reader to think it is: the author concedes the value of wisdom, and he promotes a simple life free from trying to live up to other people's arbitrary expectations. That's what attracts me, I think.
Pick of the Week: Mysteries of the Middle Ages, Thomas Cahill
Quotation of the Week: "Take that, bitch." - Abbess Hildegard's response to an unknown fellow abbess who chided Hildegard for allowing her nuns to wear their hair and clothes in comfortable ways and after Hildegard issued a theological and poetic defense -- as rendered by Thomas Cahill, who seemed to delight in joking with his readers.
- Shatterpoint, Matthew Stover
- How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill
- A World Waiting to Be Born: Civility Rediscovered, M. Scott Peck
- Deer Hunting with Jesus, Joe Bageant
© 2006 Thomas Cahill
317 pages, plus notes and index
A couple of weeks ago I met a friend for breakfast, and he brought with him an interesting-looking book. He explained that he received the book for Christmas and thought I would enjoy reading, and so I have. The book is a beautiful piece of work about the intellectual life of the medieval era. At the end, Cahill explains that his purpose was to explain the story of the "often belittled" Catholic contribution to the Renaissance. He deliberately addresses the arguments made by historians like William Manchester, who painted the medieval era as one of intellectual stagnation, where the Christian church suppressed all dissent and progress. The Church certainly did suppress progress in some areas, but what I've noticed from the medieval reading I've been doing since I read Manchester's A World Lit Only By Fire is that the medieval era was not as intellectually dead as I once thought. From our perspective they spent their time "counting how many angels could dance on the head of a pin", but civilization did continue to evolve, even after the superstructure of western civilization that had been the Roman Empire decayed and withdrew.
Cahill labors to establish the beginnings of feminism, western art, and science in the context of the Catholic Church. There is no other context for them that I am aware of in this era. Intellectual life -- odd as it seems now -- was centered around monasteries and the cathedral schools that became medieval universities. This much I know from taking courses in the subject and reading on my own. (Medieval history is not actually my primary interest: it just allows me to (1) study social history and (2) gain knowledge that supports a hobby of mine, which is writing a fantasy novel where late-Roman and medieval culture influence the culture I am creating.) His style is rabidly informal. This changes as the book wears on, but in the opening chapters Cahill is so astonishingly informal that I would stop reading, amazing that he was being so familiar with the reader. For instance: he writes on the exchange of letters between one nun and another, one Hildegard, in which the first nun tsk-tsks at the way Hildegard allows her nuns to dress. Hildegard defends herself eloquently, and Cahill quotes this. At the end of Hildegard's exchange, he tacks on: "Take that, bitch." The opening chapters are full of little comments like that -- "or to (God help us) Syria", and "By Zeus, how's that?" in reference to one Christian theologian stating his intention is to not feel carnal emotions at all.
The author begins by introducing us to the world of Alexandria and of Greek philosophy in general. Something I found immensely interesting was the idea that one Judeo-Greek philosopher divided the Platonic god -- Aristotle's unmoved mover -- into three parts:
All the same, Philo adopts (and adapts) man Greek philosophical categories. God is indeed the One of which nothing may be known for said -- except that he is, which is why he gave his name to Moses as ho on (He Who Is). By his Word (Logos, in Greek), as Genesis tells us, God created the world. Philo even calls the Logos a "second god" and God's firstborn. And Philo perceives even a third level in God, the Powers by which he acts in the world. Philo's Logos and Powers, therefore, play the role of mediators between the unknowable One and mankind.
Well, hello, Christian theology. Bit early for you, isn't it? In succeeding chapters, Cahill addresses the intellectual development of Rome through Greek schools of thought, the cult of virginity, the pursuit of love and its consequences, the beginnings of Reason, alchemy, western art, poetry, and politics. We meet many characters in these chapters. Some are more exciting than others, at least for me. This is a very readable narrative, and I recommend it. Beyond the narrative, though, this is a beautiful book. Even if the words were written in Arabic, this would be a beautiful book: the physical object itself is exquisite. Beautiful pictures are set right into the text, not consigned to plate-pages in the middle of the book. When quoting from primary sources, Cahill sets the text with margin art, like you might see in a monastical copy. The physical book is like a piece of art. It conveys the idea of a medieval manuscript, which is apt given its subject.
I was delighted with this book, and I will read more of the author. This is part of a series called The Hinges of History. I actually remember reading one of his books long ago, called Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea. I should return to it. This was an immensely satisfying book: both to read and to look at.
© 1998 Tremper Longman III
284 pages, plus indices
Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?" So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?
A few years ago, I read a quotation that astonished me. My astonishment rose not from the quotation itself, but from its source. The above is from the Judeo-Christian bible, believe it or not. Intrigued, I picked up my old Bible and turned to the Hebrew scriptures and read the the entire book. It was only twelve chapters or so, but my mind was boggled by the fact that such a book was in the Bible. The author purports to be Solomon and claims that he wants to share his wisdom: life is pretty meaningless. He describes his efforts to find meaning in life: he accrues wisdom, chases skirts (well, robes), builds lavish palaces, collects gold, pursues fame in war -- but everything seems to be fairly pointless. The author of Ecclesiastes -- let's call him the Teacher for the sake of convenience -- notes that regardless of what you do, you're still going to die. He notes that evil is visited upon the good and good is visited upon the evil, apparently without any purpose whatsoever. What came up in my reading was that although everything was ultimately meaningless, small pleasures could be achieved on Earth. What I disliked about the book was the Teacher's admonition that people should just obey God and the king, because there's no point in resisting them.
Despite that, the rest of the book strikes me as interesting. As someone with a disregard for money, fame, fortune, chasing skirts, and pedantry, I find much to be sympathetic with here. When I read the first volume of Asimov's Guide to the Bible, I wondered if there were books written on Ecclesiastes that were similar in tone. The closest I found was this book by Temper Longman III. I requested the book online through my library's network website, and so I missed the distasteful intention of the author to reconcile the book with Christian theology. Fortunately, however, this intention is not really made manifest until the last paragraph of the book.
The commentary is fairly straightforward. Longman devotes the introductory chapters to examining the book's author, background, style, genre, and canonicity. The author's view is that the book should be not be considered canon, but should instead be viewed as the collection of proverbs. In taking this approach, the author avoids having to address some of the book's internal inconsistencies. It also saves those of us who do not subscribe to Christian theology the potential annoyance of the author attempting to cram Jesus into every crack in the book. After the introductory chapters, the author moves verse by verse through the book. Longman always precedes each chapter with an introduction, then inserts the verses to be commented on, and then comments on each one individually. He then ends each chapter with a summary. To my surprise and delight, the author doesn't seem to impose outside meaning on anything: he explains what various Hebrew words might mean, shows the different interpretations by different commentators, and introduces his own. Generally there's not a lot of disagreement. When Longman does speculate, he makes it public, which I find admirable. In the last paragraph of the book, though, he posits that Jesus is the answer to the meaningless of life that the Teacher observed. He says that the book in final analysis "must be understood in the light of the canon".
In general, I found the book agreeable. I don't agree with his final assertion, but it's really a moot point. If he feels the need to ret-con his philosophy, that's his business. The appeal of the book is limited to those who are interested in Ecclesiastes, though.
Monday, February 2, 2009
© 2005 Harry Turtledove
This week I concluded Harry Turtledove's Worldwar-Colonization metaseries on a high note. Homeward Bound picks up at the conclusion of Aftershocks (1970) but quickly moves to 2030. In the opening pages, Turtledove moves the plot forward those six decades: the United States builds a starship (Admiral Peary) and some of the series' major viewpoint characters are put into cold sleep for their journey to Tau Ceti 3 -- otherwise known as the homeworld of the Race, "Home". Almost the entire book takes place on Home. Sam Yeager -- a major character since the In the Balance -- becomes the United States' ambassador after a character known only as "The Doctor" dies in the cold sleep process. While he fights for the United States' right to be taken seriously by the Race, other humans go sight-seeing. There's really not much to see on Home: neither the weather nor architecture vary much.
The theme of the book is almost adjustment: the Race and Humanity's relations to one another have changed. Humanity is now surpassing the Race in technology. The Admiral Peary is inferior to the Lizards' own starships, but it is clear from communications they receive from Earth that humanity's technological prowess is snowballing. We read hints that human physicists have stumbled into something so extraordinary that it turns Einstein on his head. The Race is faced with a dilemma: it is obvious that humanity will soon surpass them, creating the possibility that one day soon Nazi and Soviet warships will threaten Home. This being so, would it not be more wise for the Race to attempt to extinguish humanity -- and thus save itself from the wrath of a once-bullied foe? They know that even the United States may change its peaceful attitude toward the Race in the future as it becomes more powerful. Indeed, as we meet Americans from the 2030s, we find that they are a power-confident lot who treat the Race and the Americans of the 20th century -- those who had been in cold sleep for sixty+ years -- with a certain amount of disdain.
Turtledove weaves a thoroughly interesting story. His characters in this series have been particularly strong. We've seen characters like Sam Yeager evolve from a young baseball player who spends his offtime reading Astounding Stories into a distinguished exopsychologist and ambassador -- as well as a purported traitor whose name is remembered in infamy by some. Such is Turtledove's approach that the reader can sypathize with a character like Atvar, who is forced to entertain the proposition of turning Earth into a radioactive no-man's-land in order to save his empire from extinction. Turtledove also concludes some storylines while leaving others, giving the reader something to ponder. I for one do not like the idea of a disunited Earth settling space, considering that the major powers of Earth are the United States, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union. Turtledove's area is alternate history, but I can see someone penning a science fiction series on the basis that the Soviets, Nazis, Japanese, and Americans are fighting for space territory.
Homeward Bound is a suitable and very readable conclusion to the Worldwar/Colonization series. I can say I will miss reading this series, which is more than I can say for the How Few Remain/Timeline-191/Southern Victory series.
- Colonization: Aftershocks, Harry Turtledove
- The Battle of the Labyrinth, Rick Riordian
- Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman
- Jedi Trial, David Sherman and Dan Cragg
After nearly a two-month break, I returned to Harry Turtledove's Colonization series. Colonization is a sequel series to Worldwar, which (in four books) depicts the interruption of World War 2 by lizard-like aliens who see Earth as an attractive bit of real estate. The aliens, while technologically more advanced than the Earthers, badly underestimated the technological prowess of their supposed victims. They came anticipating feudal societies and kaniggits but found instead industrialized societies with war-centered economies. (Timing -- it's everything). The Lizards found that subjugating Earth completely was impossible, but they could not be removed, either. At Worldwar's end, humanity and the Lizards arranged a truce and divided Earth between themselves. All of Earth below the equator became a Lizard colony. The Colonization series is set twenty years later and depicts the growing changes in human and Lizard society. Humanity, being what it is, has "borrowed" bits of Lizard technology and has already become more advanced than we 21st century schmucks in the real world. Nazi Germany, for instance, has already landed on Mars. Mars, the war-god, is an appropriate avenue for the aggressive Nazis: in the last book, their aggressive stance toward the Lizards (read war) led to a short-lived nuclear exchange between the Vaterland and the Race. Aftershocks is set afterwards. Nazi Germany has been humanity's strongest and most brutal defender, but it has been eviscerated by both the Race's nuclear weapons and the terms of the peace. Aftershocks sees the United States take a stronger stance, and I found the read enjoyable.
Continuing in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series this week, I read Battle of the Labyrinth, the last book that Riordian has published.The book begins, characteristically, with Percy arriving at a new school, encountering a monster, and then making a dramatic escape that lessens the school's structural integrity. When Percy arrives at Camp Half-Blood, he learns that the camp may be in more danger than he and his fellow Olympians feared: the Labyrinth, the ancient structure that once held the Minotaur, may offer the armies of the Titans a direct path to the camp. Annabeth -- the series' Hermione -- is tasked with finding Daedalus, the architect of the maze, and convincing him to deny use of the Labyrinth. At the same time, Percy is continually visited by dark dreams. In the book, the adventurers attempt to make their way through the Labyrinth, which now spans most of the United States at least, all the while encountering monsters, other demi-gods, gods, and plot twists. This book seems to be longer than the previous books and is more engaging than the others. Riordian also shows that in this series, the conflict does not completely revolve around the main character: other major characters are off doing major things between books.
Next I read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he examines the way television has warped our culture. In Technopoly: the Surrender of Technology to Culture, he takes a stronger stand -- as you might imagine. He begins by explaining the idea that technology impacts culture (an idea shared by Isaac Asimov, who wrote in Quasar Quasar that the history of civilization cannot be rendered without examining the impact of technology), and then examines how print-culture shaped America. He then begins to write on television's impact on our culture, dedicating specific chapters to religion, politics, sports, education, and so on. Postman writes well, organizes his book in a way that makes sense, and provokes thought on his subject. Postman's opinion on television is not necessarily neutral: he and I both view it as trivializing culture. I wrote an essay back in the early fall about television and politics, and found much to agree with Postman in his chapter on politics. I recommend the read.
Lastly, I read Jedi Trial, a novel placed during the first half of the Clone Wars, shortly become Anakin Skywalker is knighted. It's essentially a combat book, with some character development. I think the Darth Bane books and Dark Rendezvous spoiled me. Perhaps if I read this without having the memory of those books fresh in my mind, I might have enjoyed it more. I find military plots to be uninteresting: Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series bored me for the most part, but Colonization has been stimulating throughout. On the other hand, I seem to enjoy Michael and Jeff Shaara's military works.
Pick of the Week: Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman
Quotation of the Week: "The television commercial is about products only in the sense that the story of Jonah is about the anatomy of whales, which is to say it isn't. Which is to say further , it is about how one ought to live one's life." - Amusing Ourselves to Death, similar to the viewpoint of one of my sociology professors, who says that "Advertising sells the idea of normalcy."
- Homeward Bound, Harry Turtledove
- Mysteries of the Middle Ages, Thomas Cahill
- The Book of Ecclesiastes, Tremper Longman