Brutus: The Noble Conspirator

Equal parts fascinating and maddening book which readily admits it is weaving a whole cloth out of not much thread. It asks an interesting question: Brutus is given a certain amount of respect, relative to his co-conspirators in the assassination of Julius Caesar, but why?

He is typically depicted as being rather more high minded than the ‘lean and hungry’ looking Cassius.

What does Ms. Tempest conclude? That he had a bit of a reputation as being a high minded person while alive and that he also actively sought to promote that image, even if it wasn’t always warranted (because there is, apparently, evidence that he was also greedy, rapacious, and rather petulant).

The primary sources appear limited and she relies heavily on the letter of Cicero, including his letters to Brutus (also, Plutarch’s biography of him).

It was a maddening read, the lack of certainty (which sometimes felt compensated for by a bit of padding). But also because he seemed like such a bright fellow. He was a well known orator (even if Cicero didn’t like his rhetorical style) and writer of philosophical texts, though no copies of his orations nor his treatises appear to have survived.

What I hadn’t really known was how long Brutus and the other conspirators were allowed to basically continue on after the assassination and how long it took for things to devolve into a(nother) civil war.

So having finished it, I picked up some Cicero I’d started but never completed, so that’s an accomplishment that book achieved.

Swords Of Mars

I was, at first, excited that Burroughs had returned to the original hero of the Mars (or Barsoom) stories: John Carter.

But after writing so many other Barsoom books in between that focused on other heroes (including Carter’s son), Carter somehow felt like just one more generic, noble minded warrior. What had made him unique seemed to have dissipated. The sense of wonder… even the powers he gained from Mars’ lesser gravity. In fact, Burroughs often seemed to forget that Carter, on that planet, had super strength and the ability to leap great heights and distances. The latter comes up once, but was otherwise routinely ignored, even when it would have obviously have been useful.

What he did do, with moderate success, was illuminate another, more urban aspect of his milieu. Carter, in disguise, wanders the dense and somewhat nefarious city of Zodanga, mixing with assassin guilds and mad scientists. In fact, parts reminded me of a less grimy, tongue-in-cheek Lankhmar.

Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image In His Own Time

I am not sure the McDonald’s book is quite so different from other biographies and studies of Jefferson as he thinks, was one thought that occurred to me as I read Confounding Father. Really, in trying to show how Jefferson is seen in his own lifetime, he is going over things I have read previously and I do not really see a very different shine on any of it.

Which is not to say that it isn’t a good book on the great man with interesting things to say.

He credits Jefferson’s rise to fame in part, at least, to Hamilton’s constant, public attacks on him, which served to elevate him as the leader of a certain democratic ideology, which I have read before, but which he describes in greater detail that I have read before.

The image of him as the philosopher on the mountain began, by this account, in the late 1780s (and has persisted to this day), but one of the things that comes up repeatedly is how little known he was for his (disputed) authorship of the Declaration until probably the 1790s and how much that was actively promoted by Jefferson himself, albeit in a slightly roundabout fashion (by contacting what we would now call thought leaders and gently letting them know about his key role and helping elevate the document to a place which it had not held before).

The best section by far is on the elections of 1796 and 1800. Specifically, on how electioneering took place. The descriptions of letters going back and forth and the wars taking place via partisan newspapers… it’s all the sort of thing that I love (he writes that in 1800, printers circulated 250,000 newspapers, pamphlets, and books each week in America, truly astounding number, greater even, I wager, than the amount of Harry Potter fan fiction produced last year). How the (now known to be true) tales of his sexual relationship with Sally Hemings circulated in the media even gets its own chapter.

So, in the end, it was a decent, if not terribly deep, biography.

The Four Horsemen: The Discussion That Sparked An Atheist Revolution

The title is writing checks that this transcript can’t cash. Or maybe it did. Maybe this banal festival of self-satisfaction did spark a revolution of people who think that reading Sam Harris makes you smart.

The thing is, I find half of the participants to be smug, shallow t—ts. Dennett is a legitimately fine philosopher and Hitchens one of the great raconteurs of the last fifty years.

But Dawkins cashed in his well earned fame from his early work as an evolutionary biologist into a second career as a low rent Jordan Peterson and Harris has been a first class a— for many years.

The format lets no one get a real head of steam going and if you’ve ever watched the video, you can see a progressively drunker Hitchens get frustrated at how boring his compatriots are.

I hadn’t any desire to read this, but my child and I were at the library and I wanted something to read while she did her thing, so looked to see if this branch had any Hitchens and they did… sort of. Best thing I can say about this: it’s short and fast to read.

‘Modern Philosophy: An Introduction And Survey’ By Roger Scruton

These were originally lectures and it can sometimes read like a textbook, but you are always, eventually reminded that you are reading Scruton. To read Scruton to understand another philosopher is like reading Heidegger on Nietzsche: the purpose isn’t to understand Nietzsche, if you’re doing it right.

So, if the purpose is to understand Scruton, what is his ‘philosophy?’

Well, this is still a set of university lectures on modern philosophy, so he’ll never say. He doesn’t enunciate much positive philosophy, but his criticisms give some guidance. Maybe the closest he comes is somewhere past the halfway point where he identifies rationalism as the key to what makes man unique. He specifically, yet also implicitly, suggests that Aristotelian rationalism is something very close to correct. This fits with interest in aesthetics and high culture. He appreciate religion, without being religious, so a certain rationalist uniqueness to humanity is what gives humanity its ability to create something important through the arts. I’m struggling to put myself clearly here and I’m both butchering and bowdlerizing rationalism in the philosophical sense, but I’m hoping someone can make sense of what I’m trying to say.

He is also, seemingly a bit of a Kantian. And his strange relationship with religion reaches it pinnacle in a chapter on the Devil, which is has maybe a few words on him (it) and then twenty pages Marx, Sartre, and Derrida. I felt like he could have found a subtler way of showing his feelings here.

My hackles were raised at his dismissal of pragmatism as ‘a peculiarly American tradition.’ He seems to try to ignore James in favor of Peirce, but his real target is Rorty, who he does (not incorrectly, I would suggest) say is perhaps better understood as a post-modernist. Having done so, he suggests that the whole affair (America’s most important contribution to philosophy) is ‘casuistry.’ Vexing.

Ayers’ classic (once recommended to me by my father; I have a copy I bought in Paris many years ago), Language, Truth, and Logic, is lovingly dismissed as Sir Roger says people should read it, but read it quickly and inattentively. Hard to think of a better way dismiss an historically important work you happen to find facile.

This appears in a chapter on knowledge (I don’t believe he uses the term epistemology here, which, if I am correct in my memory, must surely be deliberate) that is rather short considering the outsized role that this study has played on western philosophy (and Scruton is not particularly concerned with any other kind). Of course, he does talk about theories of knowledge and perception throughout. But he dismisses (often snidely) and quickly moves past ideas that cast doubt or aspersion upon the possibility that, basically, an intelligent person in more or less full possession of their mental and sense faculties, is actual perceiving what he (and, let’s be frank, he is probably picturing a man, not a woman) believes he is perceiving. If I think I see a table, there probably is a table and we can, more or less, operate on that premise.

In another classic ‘Scrutonism,’ he says the tracking theory of knowledge is ‘the name usually given to the theory advanced at tedious length by Robert Nozick.’ Nozick being a famously conservative figure, I appreciated his equal opportunity wit.

Despite his attitude towards Ayers, he seems to give especial consideration to British thinkers of nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Russell is oft mentioned (yet receives little affection) and figures like Bradley and McTaggart get plenty of attention. This seems only fair. I suppose that, as a sort of conservative traditionalist, he is not terribly concerned with topics that might undermine the ability to comment on other topics.

One suspects that he felt under appreciated as a serious philosopher and this book is, in part, a statement of erudition: see, look how deeply I have read and understood within the philosophical canon. He also takes time to show off his logical chops, despite, so far as I can tell, being not much interested in formal logic in what one might call the Scrutonian project. Which, again, points to a man proving himself to his critics.

He is a wonderful stylist. Less pugilistic than Hitchens, yet equally witty (and equally well versed in his chosen field). I was most deeply struck towards the end, where he seemed to reveal something almost personal, writing, ‘Yet possession is easy, provides one does not recoil from being possessed.’ It comes during a critique of Sartrean freedom, which drifted onto the subject of sex. A brief moment, yet glancing towards a personal theory of love and desire that does not shy away from a certain earthiness, yet also not viewing that as meaning it must be spiritually meaningless. Hard to sum up and I am also bringing in memories from other writings by Scruton. I will simply reiterate that it strongly struck me.

He concludes with a rather abrupt and incomplete call to future philosophers to adopt a study a community (viewed in opposition to the supposed self-centeredness of French existentialism), but what he really means (and he seems to stumble a bit) is aesthetics, in some roundabout way. A disappointing final page to an otherwise interesting book.

BadFaith: Race And The Rise Of The Religious Right

This book does not tell a new story. It is commonly understood that the evangelical political movement did not organically organize around opposition to abortion, but was woken from its Benedictine slumber by rulings that eliminated tax exempt status for whites-only schools, better known as segregation academies. Abortion was picked as the issue to speak about more publicly because the real inspiration was rather icky.

What is interesting is that Balmer grew up within the movement and has personally spoken with key figures like Paul Weyrich and was present for someone of Reagan’s less subtle dog whistles. It’s a short book, but while not an exemplar of style, does provide a pretty interesting and often insider’s view of the meetings and events that led to the evangelical movement becoming a right wing political movement, leaving behind, along the way, the social justice teaching of Christ.

Radical Hamilton

This… was a disappointment. I know Hamilton is having a moment, but this book didn’t quite seize on it.

The unique insight, supposedly, is that Hamilton’s insufficient to recognized Report on Manufactures is the key economic document for understanding the man’s rare genius. Yet despite saying constantly how important that work is, it is not properly discussed until something like 2/3 of the way into the book.

The book feels just sort of… thin. Yes, a connection was made between his biography (especially his service in the Revolutionary War), but I don’t know. I wanted more. I expected more. Hamilton was a prophet of government involvement in the economy and of industrial strategy (if there was an interesting insight, it was the connection between Hamilton’s ideas and the industrial policies of Japan during the Meji era).

Finally, he keeps using the word ‘dirigiste’ to describe Hamilton’s position on virtually everything. I mean, a lot. He uses it all the time. The constant use is like someone who has just discovered a word and decides to keep using it, rather like when my child learned to spell and use the word ‘anxious’ and it was her go to adjective in virtually any context.

Understanding Thomas Jefferson

Halliday begins his book with frequently salacious asides about Jefferson’s sex life, which rather sets the tone… badly. Taken in and of itself, the erotic life of our third president is a valid path of inquiry, but his probing is written in the language of a nineteen year old trying to show off his supposed sexual sophistication in conversation with sixteen year olds. Like any normal adult eavesdropper on that hypothetical conversation, I was not amused. The whole thing is not improved by improvidently titling the second chapter, Surges of Youth.

Really, it feels like a rather juvenile and often tone deaf excuse to delve into the sex life of our third president. And it gets downright icky at times. He bemoans that when Abigail Adams measured Polly, Jefferson’s youngest daughter, and the young slave who was accompanying, a certain Sally Hemings, that no record of Ms. Hemings measurements survive. So sad that we don’t get to know the cup size of a girl was fourteen at the time. He later suggests that maybe Sally seduced Thomas, which is supposed to make conservative commentators who can’t stand the idea that he fathered her children feel better about the whole thing. It seems a shame that this has to be mentioned, but an adolescent girl who is also owned by someone does not have the independent capacity to seduce a middle aged man, nor to give anything like genuine, informed consent to sex.

On several occasions, he explicitly describes his project as in opposition to the premise of Ellis’ Pulitzer Prize winning American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (which is on my list, but which I haven’t read yet). Towards the end, in the penultimate chapter, he asks if his book, thus far, has elucidated Jefferson’s character so far as to say it is not Sphinx-like. While admire that he believes Jefferson can be understood, unless he is best understood as a somewhat sex-addled figure, I’m not sure this book has succeeded in that laudable mission.

I was also personally miffed by his remark that ‘Jefferson’s tenacious adherence to the moral-sense theory of psychology must be judged as scientifically rather dubious.’ First, I’m not sure how much that is the case. And I assume he is referring to Jefferson’s general acceptance of the sentimentalist theory of morals which was so eloquently argued by prominent figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, which adherence made him quite forward thinking for his time (with the caveat that many contemporary elites would have agreed with him). However, he almost made up for that by praising Gore Vidal’s Burr.

Christmas With Yevtushenko

While unpacking Christmas ornaments, I found this receipt for a collection of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poetry, courtesy of Capitol Hill Books.

Why Liberalism Failed

A sort of instantly frustrating book, beginning with the misleading statements and deceptive terminology of the (apparently) new preface. When he claimed liberals were ignoring custom, and this written post-Trump, I nearly put it down.

But the real issue is that he conflates or distinguishes classical liberalism from contemporary western liberalism (or what can frequently be called progressivism), as it suits his needs. He acknowledges this complaint… but miraculously fails to explain why it’s wrong.

His arguments are, in truth, against modern Western culture. His targets begin with modern philosophy, which is to say, around the seventeenth century, but really, he is railing against what is sometimes referred to as the Enlightenment project, but deliberately uses words or goes off on tendentious digressions (usually around culture war issues) to make it seem like centuries long project is identical with a caricature of the Democratic (and implying, as well, that the loyal opposition is nearly free of these original sins).

I was reminded of a moment during the 2020 vice presidential debate and Pence answered a question about climate change and hurricanes by saying that scientists actually say that we aren’t having more hurricanes. Which is true (scientists say that climate change is increasing the strength, not the frequency of hurricanes). And knowing that, it is obvious he knows the truth about climate change and just chooses to ignore it for crass political reasons.

Oh. And apparently acceptance of transgendered people is the direct cause of both child trafficking and the use pregnancy surrogates. I wonder if this is what QAnon is like?

I could write more, but after reading some unfortunate remarks about the Civil War (which included some subtle support for the unreconstructed), I became convinced that is an attempt to creat an intellectual framework for the overwhelmingly white and mostly male rage that has fueled bigotry and violence in our country. He sometimes seems to praise a semi-rural, (practically speaking) white golden age and I almost thought he would advocate for a sort of Benedictine option, but running beneath it all is an angry undercurrent of support for tearing it all down which only feels more dangerous today than it must have felt when it was first published. And while he makes symbolic jabs at Republicans (Rubio gets name checked, which is fair, seeing as how he has never had a real job in his entire life but has always suckled at spigot fed him a mixture of tax dollars and lobbyist largesse; but the real target is always a caricature of white liberalism and dependents on the government, by which he doesn’t mean snotty little brats like Rubio, but the more usual targets of Republican ire).

I am trying to read conservative thought because I want to go beyond my own accepted beliefs, but I want to read intelligent discourse, too, and this book is a hot mess of learning gleaned from watching YouTube lectures on ‘Great Books’ (note: being able to reference the allegory of the cave from The Republic doesn’t make you sound smart; go a little deeper into the catalog if you want me to think you’re well-read) and dime store sociology, overlaid onto what I have said I believe is toxic resentment.

In short, it’s trash.