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October 27, 2005

Benjamin Franklin (Bio.)

Edmund S. Morgan – 0300101627

This little book is brilliantly and lovingly written, and a light while informative work which everyone ought to read.

While biographical, it deals more heavily with the latter years of Dr. Franklin’s life: the period of decades when he was, in effect, ambassador to the European Western world, molder of opinions about America, and chief financier of the Revolutionary War. There is sufficient detail about his activities (pre-and post-revolutionary) to inform the reader of just how pivotal he was, and it offers sufficient personal information about him in order for the reader to become familiar with Franklin, the man: his nature, scientific proclivities, love of people and camaraderie, thoughts, concepts of the country he loved and served, and the evolution of his attitudes toward revolution.

I, for one, was not aware of how much Franklin believed in the British Empire, how much he felt himself to be a “British American”, and how hard he tried to influence the English parliament to accede to American requests for autonomy within the empire, before finally concluding that revolution was the only answer . . . at which time he worked mightily to support and finance it, and later to contribute to the founding of the American democratic republic. Also interesting are the unfulfilled ideas which Franklin had about how the union ought to be: a union of the people, not just of the states, and one more oriented to the general welfare, albeit within a capitalist system. (e.g.: he usually gave his inventions over to public domain, without patenting them, for their general use.)

I’m certain there are more voluminous and comprehensive biographies of Franklin—or at least tomes which are much longer--but it is difficult for me to imagine one which is more wonderfully crafted and pleasurable to read.

One of America’s most distinguished historians has indeed written one of the best books on the greatest statesman of his—or any--age.

“Superb. . . . The best short biography of Franklin ever written.” Gordon Wood, New York Review of Books.

‘Nough said. Read it!! It is well worth the several hours it will require.

Posted by respeto at 11:45 AM

The Mind of the Maker

Dorothy L. Sayers – ISBN 0060670770

A compelling and thoughtful book: the author was a mystery writer, a theologian, culture commentator, playwright, and critic of the (mis-)use of the written word. She explores free will, evil, the Christian creeds and the Trinity, amongst other subjects.

This reissued book (from 1941) is only 225 pages, but is a very intense read. Neither an apology for, or an expression of her personal religious beliefs, she does expound on the issues of that—and this—day “in light of specialized knowledge, on a particular set of statements made in the Christian creeds and their claim to be statements of fact.”

At the outset she attacks “illiteracy” (remember, this is 1941) resulting from the neglect by the public to understand the exact meanings of words, thereby missing what is being said . . . “inevitably imposing its own prejudices and questions upon that which it is reading.”

She covers:

Laws of nature and opinion, in which “natural law” as understood within the framework of religious conformity by which man enjoys “true freedom,” explaining how the laws of nature are determinable by experience.

The image of God is her interpretation of the expression “in his own image,” noting that “only the most simple-minded of people . . . have supposed the image to be a physical one.” While she doesn’t get into the accidental/cosmic vs. creationist arguments, her explanations of biblical metaphors used certainly impacts upon that (now) raging discussion.

“All language about everything is analogical; we think in a series of metaphors . . . and explain nothing in terms of itself, but only in terms of other things.” Complaining, then, that man measures God by his own experience is a waste of time inasmuch as man measures everything by his own experience . . . he has, after all, no other yardstick. An illuminating conversation, that!

In the energy revealed in creation, she explores the school of thought “which imagines that God, having created His universe, has now screwed the cap on His pen, put up His feet on the mantelpiece and left the work to get on with itself.” Having created His wonderful machine he now sits back waiting for it to run down for lack of fuel: which first ignores the fact that machines just go on doing the same things over again, and, as well, fails to account for human creativeness.

Free will and miracles, Maker of ill things, and The love of the creature are amongst the remaining subjects explored.

Overall a challenging and thought producing treatise, well worth the time, but be prepared to spend lots of it re-reading . . . and thinking!

Posted by respeto at 11:42 AM

October 21, 2005

Who Killed Homer

Victor Davis Hanson – ISBN – 1895354260

(Sorry this is 1100 words, but it would be unfair to further edit it.)

As a classic scholar, few are better positioned to critique “classical education” than Hanson. With his co-author John Heath, he does just that. It is a scathing, judgmental dissertation on the destruction of classical education, to the extreme detriment of education in particular, and western civilization at large.

They discuss and detail the fact that current classical scholars each have their niche, and write for and to each other, failing to interest or teach anyone outside their tiny clique. In fairness, this is done in some measure to protect their careers from the attack of the multiculturalists.

Consequentially, as a civilization we are “in the midst of a hyper-reaction against the west in general, and the Greeks and their admirers in particular—as if our own present shortcomings (but not our successes) [are] somehow connected with the values of long-dead [and therefore contemptible] European men.” Seeking refuge in our victim status we ask for absolution by decrying our evil past . . . without in any way understanding it.

The virtues of Classical Greece are unique, unchanging, and non-multicultural, which explains the longevity and dynamism of Western culture. The loss of this Greek wisdom is a tragic development sweeping the planet. “A story of corruption filled with irony.” Greek wisdom—their way of looking at the world—offers an understanding of human nature and man’s place in the world which is unique to pre-industrial Mediterranean civilization, and central to all Western thought to this day.

Open debate, rational inquiry, free dissent, suppression of religious interference, moral and ethical questioning, and spiritual experience (i.e. Greek Wisdom) is what permitted the Victorians to ameliorate the evils of the West in their great age of reform: the abolition of monarchy, slavery, and mercantilism; monolithic religion, female equality and the rest, not to mention the resurrection of government by the citizens, and the scientific and industrial revolutions with their improvement in the lot of mankind.

These findings and decisions were not accidental. They were authored by our study of Greek culture and civilization, and are being lost now because we do not remind ourselves of these roots. We too often apologize for them, judging ourselves by our standards, forgetting that no civilization in the world uses these standards—save our own.

Centuries of Romanticism with its faith in the primal scream, and the Enlightenment’s absolute confidence in the salvation of man through pure reason devoid of custom, tradition, religion and allowance for the inexplicable are ruining us. We forgot what the ancient historians and philosophers taught us about the darker angels of our natures: that true freedom is chaos; liberty without responsibility is savagery; a comfortable leash is safer for us all then the door of the age thrown wide open; and education and learning—correctives of religious fanaticism—can themselves become soulless abstractions. Man without the state is not man at all (Aristotle).

Suffice it to say that this is a provocative treatise worthy of the time of everyone to read it, and ponder upon its conclusions. Civilization depends upon it.

Some feel that all cultures are equal. Others believe that all cultures are equal except the West. The truth is that no culture equals the west. We should get used to that fact, continue to improve, not destroy it with relativism, multiculturalism, etc.

America has become preponderant because we are multiracial, not multicultural! It is neither ethnocentric nor chauvinistic to accept that. Our tradition of self-criticism, of analyzing who we are, how we live, what we believe, and what we value, is the source of Western progress.

It is no accident that Rushdie and Said attack the West from England and America, not from India and Palestine.

“If you want to learn why our nation’s elite now have no morals, why our lawyers, doctors, politicians, journalists, and corporate magnates equate the accumulation of data with knowledge, frankness with truth, inherited power with justice, titles and suits with dignity, and capital with talent—why they all know nothing of Greed wisdom—you must look to the mentors who trained and degreed them.”

The elaborate with cohesive detail the why’s and where fore’s of our Greek origins, its benefits and its history. By thought, analogy, reference to Greek literature, they bring to life what is missing in education today.

Oh yes . . . Who Killed Homer? “It was an inside job by both elite philologists and theorists of the present age, who were neither able nor willing to meet the challenges of the late twentieth century. At the moment when heroic and innovative efforts were needed in the university, this last generation of custodians of Greece and Rome adopted the ethics of the winner-take-all-moguls it claimed to despise. Those who did not, kept silent.” Not by design or intent, but by indecision, cowardice and sloth.

Greek thought can hardly influence our culture if we are unaware of what they thought.

It is mortality itself that compels humans to make some sense of their existence here and now, each day to discover what it means to “live well.” And it is Achilles who confronts and accepts death most honestly, and ironically, most sympathetically as well. This is a review for those who know, and elaborative for those who do not.

Their suggestions for solution(s) are difficult, demanding, and unlikely to be incorporated into the curriculum of today’s universities, but that is the shame of it all. They are merciless to faculty, administration and boards of the schools. They dutifully recant the perks of current higher education moguls, emphasizing cushy jobs in the lab without any teaching obligation. Sabbaticals, long vacations and no responsibilities, and worse: trivial research of no consequence. Publish or perish, even if it is “garbage in/garbage out.”

The fact that the professoriate in general considers this a screed is illuminating enough. “What a strange world American academia has become: more government money pours into higher education; students’ tuition in reaction nevertheless rises, not falls, and professors teach less in order to write more [on more arcane trivia, which] fewer read.”

Their after-word, in the paperback issue, is alone worth the price of the book. In it they quote, then excoriate their critics within academia.

“Ethics cannot be entrusted to the academic philosophers, who often leave students with the impression that there is little difference between thinking ethically and quibbling, that the purpose of texts is always to confuse rather than to clarify, that to act morally is synonymous with speaking in code about morality.” Victor Davis Hanson

Posted by respeto at 3:59 PM

October 15, 2005

The Tipping Point

(How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference)
Malcolm Gladwell – ISBN – 0316346624

You’ll find this a very absorbing read, consistent with your intuition, really. The hypothesis is that in product/thought or what have you, there is, or at least can be a “tipping point” when the concept/product, overnight, becomes widely supported. On the other hand, he also makes the point that the world does not necessarily always accord with our intuition, being, then, counterintuitive

His interesting exposition of situations in which this clearly applies is informative. And there are many indications for marketing, products and data, concepts and philosophies.

Of his numerous examples, one of the more interesting is his revisit of the Broken Window concept of policing. A better explanation of this phenomenon has yet to be written. He elaborates rather fully upon how fixing the little things, such as cleaning up graffiti on subway cars, inherently speaks to, and for, order, thereby intimidating people who would disrupt it, channeling them into behaviors more acceptable.

His persisting point is how a number of relatively minor changes in external environment can have dramatic effects on how we behave, who we are, what we buy, etc.

He also leads afield into discussions of various human traits such as character . . . its inconsistencies and predictabilities as well.

At one point he discusses targeted interventions, often dismissed as "Band-Aid" remedies. He notes, however, that this is unnecessarily disparaging, inasmuch as the Band-Aid is the classic example of an “inexpensive, convenient, and remarkably versatile solution to an astonishing array of problems.” So with many Band-Aid remedies!

“Tipping Points are a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can [often] be tipped.”

His observations on present adolescent society are evocative, prescient, and demands more of a reply than most parents and others of responsibility are providing—and, to the detriment of the kids.

Overall an interesting and breezy read, well worth the time.

Posted by respeto at 12:36 PM

The Other Greeks

(The family farm and the agrarian roots of Western civilization)
Victor Davis Hanson – ISBN – 0029137519

Herein Hanson chronicles the little known history of the yeoman farmers. These were the original, independent land owners: people who seldom farmed more than 10 acres, but those few very intensively. They were free to implement new ideas and develop proven routines, take their own risks and profits . . . and they were the ones who actually established the city states of ancient Greece. The end of the Greek Dark Ages (1,000 BC) represented a rare time in history wherein, with the collapse of prior dynastic rule, men were judged by competence and work, not inherited wealth or birth. Economic success and independence were possibilities, based upon productivity alone.

Noting that we tend to think in terms of Pericles, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Alcibiades, Aeschylus, etal, he informs that these were all “followers-on” to the original founders of the polis—simple and successful farmers, all. The glue holding this together seems to have been a common subscription to the simple values of the agrarian ideology, even by those of wealth, as well as the landless poor.

As he often does, the author laments and emphasizes the downfall of Western culture, including the educational vacuum surrounding history. (In that regard, I recommend his treatise: The Death of Homer, in which he explores in detail this threatening dilemma.)

“In the twilight of classical studies in this country [it should be better known] that the Greeks were not distant, unapproachable grandees, the property now of a few thousand well-educated Westerners (present day niche academics.) Instead, the Hellenes were resourceful farmers who devised their own society intended to protect and to advance their brand of agriculture. Their achievement was the precursor in the West of private ownership, free economic activity, constitutional government, social notions of equality, decisive battle, and civilian control over every facet of the military—practices that affect every one of us right now. In this light, Greek agriculture is not a different approach to the traditional questions of Western civilization but a topic now vital to the existence of our own culture.”

Four centuries before the appearance of Imperial Athens (about 800 BC), these yeomen worked out a system wherein small land owners banded together to provide for the common defense and promote their general welfare, thus to secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity. The accumulation of wealth and property appears to have been actively discouraged. This, in turn, led to peace and prosperity for the many. There is no prior record in history of such a development.

In the ensuing centuries they produced the abundance of food which enhanced the earliest cities in which other productive citizens, freed from the necessity of food production, were able to become craftsmen and merchants. Prolific production created plenty, and were able to export to regional neighbors, food and other products, creating the capital with which to improve and stabilize their cities--the “meeting places” wherein the problems and dilemmas of the day were discussed and voted upon.

Only the landowners were able to afford the armaments with which they protected themselves, and only those who farmed and fought were permitted to govern. Therein arose the original armies of democrats—the Greek citizen infantry--imbued with attitudes of cooperation and the value of individual life. They fought as a unit and were able to defend their own territories, saving lives and limiting military expenditures. Their primary philosophy was defensive, not offensive, and they valued protecting themselves from harm over inflicting casualties. Rarely did they go beyond the bordering lands, and felt they lost the moral high ground by invading the home territories of another clan/city state.

Only later did there develop “radical democracy” in which many of the citizens were permitted to vote, and much of this was attendant the growing wealth of the cities, with merchants and freed slaves who were included in the voting public. Still later the oarsmen of the Greek armadas were permitted the vote. Ultimately, the demands of the Peloponnesian wars and the Persian menace undercut the attitudes of the yeoman agriculturalist, and spelled the doom of Greece, classical and otherwise, permitting the rise of Philip, and Alexander, of Macedon.

“Many of the cherished ideals of Athenian culture and even some of its most exalted notions of Greek philosophy may owe their origins to the experience and aspirations of Attic peasantry.” Facts which ought to be taught, considered and understood!

So the origins of what we consider classical Greece were, in fact, the result of the labors and thoughts of the common man . . . the same sort as those who eventually built the United States. In searching for the genesis of our own culture we need look to the unique circumstances in the early Greek countryside, not simply to Imperial Athenian democracy. Look, that is, to individual effort and success, not the famous intellects of Imperial Athens.

Indeed, the subsequent development of large corporate farms, hired labor, mercenary service and sea power with their attendant horrendous expense, and participation of all citizens in politics regardless of property ownership was ultimately responsible for the erosion of the original concept of the polis and the eventual failure of Imperial Greece. Few now know that the lauded history of classical, antiquarian Athens lasted only a few of generations. Half of that life was under the rule of Pericles, and it began to fail immediately following his death in an epidemic of plague.

It is a fascinating read, and one which explores previously unplumbed depths.

Posted by respeto at 12:26 PM