‘Jade City’ By Fonda Lee


Sort of fantasy, but not really. More like science fiction, in some ways, set on a fictional world resembling the late forties detente that followed World War II. This, perhaps, threw me off and it took me a while to get into it.

What is worthwhile is a fascinating locale, resembling an Asian nation, ostensibly a constitutional monarchy, but in reality governed by rival criminal families (I could be wrong, but it seems modeled on earlier eras in Hong Kong or Macau, when Triads had a hand in much of the economy). Also, while most of the characters are men, the one, major POV protagonist, Shae, is absolutely compelling. One wishes that the author had written more strong women into the book and that sequels will feature Shae and other women more prominently.

Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny


I was forced to confront that I did not know as much Roman history as I assumed. Watts documents the breakdowns in republican norms that ultimately led to Augustus, nee Octavian, Caesar.

He is also, one assumes, drawing a bright line between Roman acceptance of the collapse of norms and our current crisis of democracy. Admirable, if maybe a bit tacked on. History does not exist to fit our notions.

The earlier crises are better reading than the final crisis, because I was left with a sense of knowing figures like Pompey the Great, Sulla, and Tiberius Gracchus. But vital, late players like Marc Antony and Octavian remain opaque in Mortal Republic.

For you Ciceronians, this quote might amuse or gall:

Cicero was an equestrian with a gift for long-wonder, self-congratulatory orations that nevertheless often proved extremely persuasive.

Cicero does not come out of Mortal Republic with much dignity intact.

Biographical Sketches Of Famous Men


The only three included (I don’t know if there were more, but I must assume so) are of Washington, Franklin, and Wythe. Franklin here suit my own preconceived notion of him as a sort of wise clown, deflecting conflict with humor and contributing through a sort of peacemaking between parties. One wonders his feelings on the underlying subject of the Washington sketch, which is, like war, politics by other means: Republicanism vs Federalism.

Symposium


An irritating edition in some ways (the parenthetically suggestions to compare to Aristotle’s Politics are not helpful).

I had forgotten, if, indeed, I ever knew, that it (in this dialogue, at least) was Eryximachus who tells the tale of a single creature split in half and who then seeks his missing half). I know that this is one of his most popular dialogues, on account of its frank eroticism (Alcibiades’ account of his attempts to seduce Socrates are funny, to be sure), but I don’t feel very enlightened tonight. Probably just my mood.

Letters From A Stoic


Coming at a difficult period (a toxic work climate and the passing of a beloved family member), I read this slowly. It is exactly the sort of consolation one might want from a collection of Stoic writings. How to deal with bad influences, grief, old age, and illness. How to appreciate friends.

Because he mostly writes these letters from a sort of pastoral exile (at one point, from the house that once belonged to Scipio Africanus), it also reinvigorated my own fantasies of a wealthy, rural exile.

In a more academic sense, it does not necessarily delve too deeply into things like Stoic atomism and not at all (except by noting it exists) Stoic logic (for which, I gather, they were most famous; I haven’t read any of the school’s treatises on logic but I gather they are mostly concerned with “and” and “or” statements).

‘The Necromancers’ By Robert Hugh Benson


It is not nearly so lurid nor horrific as the title might lead one to believe. It’s really just an Edwardian ghost story.

The comparison I kept coming to is a wholesome, English take on J K Huysmans Le-Bas, which I now want to read again. A young man who is vulnerable to the deductions of occultism, but ultimately rejects it after going nearly as far as one can, and returns to his faith in the end. Benson was an Anglican minister who converted and became a Catholic priest and Huysmans a writer within the French Decadent movement who had a Pauline moment and became a devout churchgoer and eventually an oblate.

Notes On Virginia


You can see Jefferson’s regular topics and conceits clearly here. A chapter on religion is mainly about the religious freedom he so assiduously (and successfully; he wrote the statute) championed in Virginia. On education, it reflect the inadequacy of both the physical and curricular structure of William & Mary, then the state’s only college; arguments no doubt in support of his quest to establish the University of Virginia at the base of his mountain. You see Jefferson the amateur scientist (and a fascinating digression into some amateur archaeology that he undertook on a Native American burial mound.

On manufacturing, his disdain for large scale production is clear (despite the fact that very nearly his only profitable venture was a nail factory he built on his lands). It feels a little naive, to disdain creating finished goods here, beyond basic items, but it fits with his pastoral/agricultural republicanism. Like Socrates, he seems to think smaller polities are better.

On race… the less said the better. He was at a point where his views were evolving and not for the better. He is open to the idea that the native peoples could achieve a cultural status close to whites, but that “generosity” only reminds the modern reader of the anti-black racism running through his brain.

Takeaway quote (from the religion section):

It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.

And you know what? In this day, his vigorous, anthropological critique of religious oppression may seem commonsensical today, in the eighteenth century it was far more daring and outre.

Doesn’t make up for the racism, though.