Battling The Gods: Atheism In The Ancient World


Protagoras, Democritus, and Prodicus (the last of which I had never heard of before, but was apparently famous for his comparative atheism) are produced as examples, but never quite come together as genuine examples of what we might consider atheists.

The book is fascinating, but not a small amount of it feels like fascinating filler. I loved reading about who was at Callias house to hear Protagoras speak and the intellectual foment of Periclean Athens, but joy does not a hypothesis prove.

It seems less a history of atheism, despite the author’s valiant efforts, than is is a book illustrating that religion and religious belief in the classical period of the Mediterranean was more complex than it is given credit for. And I was frequently reminded with Sir Roger Scruton’s tendency, when speaking of religion, to go reference the Roman household gods as things that were honored, without necessarily being deeply believed in.

But even in that argument, one can reply that it is limited in the sense that this is elite history; in fact, it is a history of philosophers. Even if you believe he has proved the existence of something like modern atheism in classical Athens or imperial Rome, he has not proved that it was widespread or even that it existed beyond Cicero’s dinner parties.

But it’s fun to read about Cicero’s dinner parties and the many, mostly non-Plato/Aristotle/Socrates philosophers of that ancient time and worth spending a little time with them, even if no important points about atheism were actually made.

Thomas Jefferson: A Modern Prometheus


First, let me credit Professor Moses with being the first person I have read to refer to Thomas Jefferson as ‘the Count of Monticello.’ As someone deeply impacted by both Thomas Jefferson and Dumas’ epic novel of revenge, The Count of Monte Cristo, I applaud without reservation.

Jeffersonian agrarianism from Locke’s idea that property derived from making use of the land. Against speculators, rentier capitalism, and… American Indiana making ‘unprofitable’ use of the land.

On the whole, his criticism and occasional fury are well merited, I must allow. His showing that Jefferson was not the child prodigy and possibly not as intellectually gifted as Franklin and Hamilton feels a little petty, but is possibly a necessary corrective to Jefferson’s (unwarranted, I reckon Moses would say) reputation for such great intellectual gifts as inspired Kennedy to make his famous remark about Jefferson dining alone to a group of Nobel Prize recipients. He actually spends almost the entire chapter on genius casting shade on Jeffersonian claims to it, before ending that chapter by concluding that, yeah, he actually was pretty darn smart.

Moses also made some nice references to Jefferson’s relationship to various works of history and philosophy, some based on direct knowledge (because Jefferson wrote down his thoughts) and some conjectural (like suggesting that Jefferson must have absolutely hated Plato’s dialogue, Crito).

I must also allow that when I defend Jefferson or feel defensive when he is attacked is possibly my own white privilege rearing it’s fish belly pale head.

I must also allow that this an absolutely terrific book. I don’t know who you are, reading this blog (besides my mother, of course), but whoever you are, this a fantastically researched, elegantly thought out work and you should read it.

I think I am the first to read this copy, which I borrowed from the library. The paper feels wonderfully new and so lovely to the touch. I remember in the Tin Drum, the narrator asking for a ream of virgin paper. This paper, too, feels virgin.

Snow Country


I don’t know why I put this book on hold at the library, but I’m glad I did (sorry, DC Public Library, for being late returning it!). A kind of melancholy minimalism and claustrophobic stasis afflicts the characters, of whom there are really only three: Shinamura, an apparently wealthy man (or, at least, a man of sufficient means not to need to work); Komako, the geisha (who begins, rather, as a sort of geisha in training) who becomes his lover; and Yoko, another sort of geisha in training.

It takes place in a sort of middle class vacation spot in the titular snow country, where people ski in winter and enjoy hot springs the rest of the year. Neither wealthy nor sophisticated, the geishas who work here have neither the luxury nor the illusion of their profession’s official distance from sex work.

Shinamura is married back in Tokyo, though only one short scene takes place there. He returns frequently to the hot springs town to see Komako, though the memory of an early sighting of Yoko stays with him and both he and Komako struggle with both love and ambivalence towards her.

Though obviously not needing to work, Shinamura is first seen traveling third class on the train and stays in a resort that is rather obviously not fancy. But his independence still sets him apart from the women, whose lives are precarious, options limited, and who work in a career where their livelihood doesn’t last much longer than their looks.

The ending is notably ambiguous, but it is obvious that Shinamura was never going to give either woman a happy ending. It’s not that he’s indecisive, but rather… I can’t say. If you read it, you’d understand what I mean. Perhaps that his money and gender protect him from having to ever make a truly difficult decision?

A Cruelty Special To Our Species


Just… just a wonderful collection. I missed her when she came to town and read at East City Bookshop, but was glad when I finally picked up book.

The most common theme is alienation in some of its most disturbing forms. There is the alienation of being non-white seeking affirmation and a place in a white world, but the heart of the book are series of naturalistic biographical poems (often a form of prose poem) describing the lives of Korean comfort women, kidnapped by Japanese soldiers in World War II, and of Korean women who were abused by American soldiers during the Korean War (should I say, what we call the Korean War). The most heartbreaking parts about the emotionally and physically damaged women living in the long thereafter that followed the end of hostilities.

Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle To Remake America


The author is, quite clearly conservative (though I read that he received no little flak for having admitted to having voted for Obama in 2008). Not a Republican writer, per se, but something one might find favorably mentioned by the folks at the James Wilson Institute. Unsettlingly, Gutzman, while (grudgingly?) acknowledging Jefferson’s fathering of Sally Hemmings children, he also writes sympathetically of unreconstructed historians who rejected the idea.

But, I should be fair. He does not shy away from criticism of Jefferson on issues of race and slavery. Indeed, he is rather cutting. For example, he notes that our third president wrote rather deceptively of Benjamin Banneker. He suggests without evidence that a white friend might have given him help in creating his almanac (specifically, in doing the mathematical calculations) and criticizes his writing style as being indicative of an average mind, whereas Gutzman found it to clearly be from a man of cultivated intellect and sensibilities.

The section which covers in the most detail Jefferson’s thoughts on race and slavery is, I found, one of the weaker sections. Gutzman’s heart is clearly in the first part, when he outlines the Virginian’s federalism. Yes, a little jarring that the party opposed to Jefferson’s politics was called the Federalist Party, but he is using federalism correctly, at least in current usage, which, is, of course, a strict view of the limitations on federal power, with the greatest balance of government authority in the hands of the states.

Some of the other sections lacked, I felt, partly because Gutzman’s ideas on Jefferson and federalism were relatively new to me and many other topics were not. Under a chapter on education though, there is a remark that Jefferson was a fan of Henry Home, Lord Kames. That particular Lord Kames was actually David Hume’s uncle (Hume changed the spelling of his name, because when he spelled it ‘Home,’ Englishmen kept mispronouncing it) and my interest was piqued not just because I have an interest in Hume, but because of a particular letter in which Jefferson roundly attacked him.

The Cave Dwellers


I am not familiar with DC old money or their habits, but I do know that smart senators do not move their families to the District anymore (rarely since Santorum and surely never since Robert’s easy chair in Kansas).

I also know that if Fox News invites a Senator to appear as a talking head, he can’t just send his press secretary in his place; the network will decline and find a Senator who will come in person.

And, let’s be honest, newly elected Republican Senator from North Carolina is not, in 2020 (the year this book was published), going to take the lead on expanding the Violence Against Women Act to include ‘psychological coercion.’

But it was a reminder of the so-called cave dwellers, nickname for the very rich, socialite families who are mostly not directly tied to politics, but too old money and who hobnob with cable tv personalities, establishment figures in the Cabinet, and a sprinkling of foreign diplomats and their families. It is no longer a case where much is decided in their drawing rooms, as in a Gore Vidal novel, but I am at least aware they still exist. The depiction of the adolescents, whose antics took up much of the novel, were rather depictions from an R rated Gossip Girl, mixed with an early Jay McInery novel. And the ending was a reminder how the invulnerable world of the one percent both has, but mostly has not changed.

‘Conservatism: An Invitation To The Great Tradition’ By Roger Scruton


The Scruton-a-thon continues, which is both more fun and less dirty than it sounds.

Not unfairly, Scruton lays claim to Thomas Jefferson as one of his own because Jefferson’s radicalism was also a claiming of traditional custom and continuity which he saw as being threatened by the crown. Not unfair, as I said, but I am not certain that I am buying this particular bill of goods. Many of his positions, ideologies, and aims were, conservative (which is, also to say, classically liberal), but being so integral to a revolution that so altered the world… I can respect his effort and can, partly agree, but mostly feel that, in this, he missed the forest for the trees.

For an Englishman, Burke, of course, is a looming figure. And it is no surprise that Scruton, best known for his philosophical work on aesthetic theory should also be drawn to a man who is both considered a sort of founding figure of (post)Enlightenment conservatism and who made his reputation with an early work of aesthetic theory. And, on a personal note, I haven’t read Burke’s Reflections and I really need to.

His philosophical chops are shown off in some nice explication of the notoriously tortuous Hegel, who gets nearly equal billing with Burke as a founding father of conservatism. In his Hegelian interlude, he returns to something I noticed in an earlier book, Roman household gods. He seems to see this as being a very important example of how custom and tradition, even in the absence of genuine belief, are vital (and conservative) glues for societal cohesion.

When I read Scruton, I think of a good friend of mine. We met in a very liberal college environment and he felt a certain need to rebel, which meant playing up the more conservative aspects of his character. I have always believed that what he really wants to be is a Republican, but he is held back by the fact that Republicans tend to be so terrible and their ideas genuinely stupid. This friend would desperately love Republicans to be more like Roger Scruton instead of what they are, a collection of dimly thought-out ideas and a pathological commitment to giving money to the very wealthiest people and taking that money from the very poorest, laced with some shouted, but never acted on verbiage about abortion.

I listened to his lectures before reading any of his books and his sonorous voice comes through here, lightened with asides like calling John Ruskin a Protestant Chateaubriand, ‘but manifestly without the Frenchman’s immense sexual prowess.’ If Ross Douthat could produce clauses like that, I might think him less of a douchebag producer of notably thin and precious gruel (did I ever tell you about the time he came my church and got up and left early with his whole family, just before a second collection; maybe he had an unrelated reason but staying an extra ninety seconds would both have made him seem less a cheap hypocrite and me less likely to taste vomit every time he gets on his pious, ultramonatist high horse).

The Paris Years Of Thomas Jefferson


Jefferson’s time in Paris was, clearly, incredibly powerful influence on all the years the followed, especially aesthetically (reminding me to sit down with Thomas Jefferson Among the Arts, a book I bought on my last trip to visit Monticello, at a wonderful look riverfront bookstore in Yorktown).

It is not a chronological history, but rather picks up several topics and explores them in the context of his Paris interlude. Topics include the arts, science and philosophy, and… women (in the last one, the author claims that the mighty Abigail Adams was a disciple of Edmund Burke, which I loved).

Early in the chapter discussing his actual work as a diplomat (which was mixed with a role as sort of trade representative for the fledging nation), his little book, Notes on Virginia, is described as being as ‘a kind of philosophical blueprint to guide him in devising a coherent foreign policy.’

While emphasizing that (even noting that, to his friends, he seemed almost foreign, when he returned), William Howard Adams also returns to Jefferson’s… standoffishness? He was, in his own way, an introvert. He enjoyed the company of small groups of intellectuals rather than the stylish salons that Benjamin Franklin famously enjoyed during his years in Paris (possibly helped by his love of the company of women, compared to rather more ‘naive, as the author says, Jefferson). He even used to retire to a monastery for a week at a time when work was pressing

I suppose that I am seeing elements of myself in him. Which is probably why, in my inflated self-regard, I keep returning to him. And perhaps why his failings hit me so powerfully. What do his powerful and important failings say about me?

Finally, Adams quoted at length from the great American political theorist, Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition:

…deep ambiguities in his thinking, which made any effort of consistency impossible. Ever since Jefferson’s death, scholars have been trying to discern order in – or impose it upon – his elusive, unsystematic thought, but without much success. It simply dos not lend itself to ordinary standards of consistency.

I Did Not Read Winston Groom’s ‘The Patriots’ Because I Quickly Decided It Was C–p


Didn’t take me long at all the reach the decision.

First, there was slight nagging in the back of one’s head: is this written at a seventh grade level? Because it doesn’t seem like it was written at the level of a reasonably educated adult.

Then, I was inspired to look up a note in the back and I came across the citations. A lot of biographies by more or less modern writers. Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, for example. This seems remarkably lazy and surely I’d be better off reading Chernow? I mean, I’m not. Well, I guess I could read Alexander Hamilton. I will definitely finish the musical, because it’s on Disney+ and I think my daughter should watch it because apparently everyone knows all the songs already. But I’m not reading this. This is clearly terrible.

For those of you (I’m speaking to my mother and to the other person who reads this blog who, interestingly enough, is neither my wife nor my sister, neither of whom read my blog) who are thinking, hey, this is the second week in a row that you haven’t technically read a book. Well, I’m going to blow your mind. I’m writing this on February 2, 2021. Mind… blown.

Philosophy: Principles And Problems


I did not read Philosophy: Principles and Problems, or rather, I did read it. It turns out, it is just a reprint of The Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy.

The main difference is that the conservative, more or less intellectually-minded imprint, Bloomsbury, changed the title. My guess is to make it sound less populist and more… I don’t know. High-minded.

Whatever. I got from the library in an orgy of Roger Scruton borrowing, so I guess, not much lost. Perhaps even a net benefit because I might have gained some small amount of muscle from carrying it home. Not much though. It’s an even smaller book in this edition.