Jefferson & Ethics

In a letter to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, the Thomas Jefferson writes:

Under temptation and difficulties, I would ask myself what would Dr. Small, Mr. Wythe, Peyton Randolph do in this situation?

Letter to thomas jefferson randolph, washington, november 24, 1808

This struck me because I thought about a description of duty-based ethics that I once read. I wish I could remember where I read this, but the idea was that the follower of duty-based ethics would, when faced with a dilemma, ask her- or himself questions like, ‘what would a courageous person do?’ or ‘what would an honest person do?’ He seems to be proposing something similar.

For those who haven’t been reading too much by and about Jefferson for the last half decade, Dr. Small was Jefferson’s professor at William and Mary, Mr. Wythe was his mentor in the practice of law, and Peyton Randolph was the first President of the Continental Congress (who, incidentally, died of ‘apoplexy’ whilst dining with Jefferson).

Edogawa Ramp’s ‘Japanese Tales Of Mystery And Imagination

There’s a mystery where Rampo tries to make you think the amateur sleuth figured it all out through an ingenious interpretation of a word association test, but when you think about it, was actually just a much more simple slip up by the criminal, but Rampo (through the voice of his sleuth) is so pleased with himself, he can’t see it.

But mostly, it’s a psyschosexual romp through whatever is going on in Rampo’s head. The woman who spends years sexually torturing her limbless husband before accidentally blinding him. The man who may or may not have hidden inside of the super comfy chair of a famous writer so as to enjoy the erotic thrill of being sat upon. The woman who subtly encouraged two husbands to try to kill her so that she could, in turn, kill them in self defense. A story about a man obsessed with surrounding himself with mirrors is immediately followed by one about a man terrified of them.

While characters of both sexes engage in much villainy, the theme of emasculating wives is repeated. Sometimes it’s by blinding their helpless husbands, other times, it’s just by being more successful or famous (a female writer is more famous than her diplomat husband, yet we are let known that her work is somewhat frivolous, implying that her upstaging of her husband is undeserved). They are like the stories of Poe, if Poe had always been resentful of his wife, Virginia.

Reading Some ‘Phaedo’ To My Child

Some, but not all.

I mean, I read it all, but my little one was not so enthralled by this one. But this one is more complex. Crito, which we read together, is shorter and really just has two characters (Socrates and Crito). Phaedo features an interesting conceit, but possibly a confusing one for young readers. Phaedo and Echecrates speak in traditional dialogue format, but most of the dialogue is Phaedo reciting what he heard on the day that Socrates died, which was mostly a dialogue within a dialogue between Socrates, Simmias, and Cebes (Crito was also there, but mostly just cried at the end)

A reminder that beyond his philosophical genius, Plato was no mean writer, it also has a surprisingly moving account of Socrates drinking the poison and dying.

The dialogue draws upon themes in other works, including his theory of knowledge as recollection (originally posited in Meno, I think, but I’m really not sure) and a light dusting of his theory of forms. But it’s all in service of Socrates explaining to his admirers, don’t cry for me, Athens. Because, the soul is immortal and the best part of him will be going to a much better place. Or maybe be reincarnated. That’s suggested early on, but the old man’s final moments imply that the soul goes to place of pure, happy contemplation.

‘From The Ruins Of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia’ By Pankaj Mishra

This book had been happily sitting in my ‘one day to acquire and read list’ with not much hope of moving on to a less passive state when The Washington Post took it upon themselves to review his follow up publication, which caused me to bestir myself and pester my local library to lend me a copy of the earlier book.

My father would greatly enjoy reading about the first figure Mishra biographs, Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani, which is mostly fictious name (a Shi’a Muslim from Persia, he adopted ‘Al-Afghai’ to imply he was from mostly Sunni Afghanistan), classic sort of roving intellectual who traveled to many of the cultural capitals of the nineteenth century (Calcutta, Alexandria, London, Paris, Istanbul, and Moscow) as a sort professional public intellectual, sometimes making a living by giving informal lectures or classes to young, educated Muslims, sometimes as journalist, and always seeming to espouse a sort of pan-Islamic movement that was simultaneously slightly secular, while also being fundamentalist.

Liang Qichao was also new to me, though Mishra rather muddled him up with other figures, so that my sense of his importance was similarly muddled. Poor Tagore… the first non-white person to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. If the author didn’t really know what to do with him, why include him? The point seems to be, he was important because he’s kind of famous, but maybe his ideas went nowhere (so how did he remake Asia, in that case?).

Japan is posited as a simply fascinating intellectual center in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and I finished the book wishing that Mishra would write that book for us.

A Short History Of Greek Philosophy

Heraclitus was called ‘the Obscure’ by contemporaries and taught specifically for elite thinkers, not the masses. Philosophy as a mystery cult?

I also found a reference that, led me back to the book about Aristotle as a Platonist…

…but in its main ideas Aristotle’s philosophy is Plato’s philosophy. The one clothed in poetry; the other in formulae; the one had the more entrancing vision, the other a clearer and more exact apprehension; but there is no essential divergence.

What else? It’s an excellent primer, but, to be frank, I’m not sure I needed one. He does a nice, short survey, starting with the Milesians and going through to Epicurians, Stoics, and Academics/Skeptics. Those last three are better known for their popularity in Latin philosophy and Marshall is oddly disdainful of them. It’ almost like he felt compelled to wrest them from the Romans, but still felt things should have ended with Aristotle.

America In The World: A History Of U.S. Diplomacy And Foreign Policy

I can’t quite figure out what to make of Zoellick, the author. I live in Washington, DC and I’ve worked in government, so understand what it means for someone to be part of the foreign policy establishment, as Zoellick is, but beyond being a generic example of that, I don’t know what else to say, based on reading this book.

Did I like it all? Of course! It was fascinating. He gives Teddy Roosevelt a lot of credit for being a canny foreign relations player (he also, in a chapter covering Wilson, refer to him at ‘TR’ without giving me any notice that he was going to do that, which caused some initial, pointless confusion); provides a nuanced look at Japanese policy positions and motivations; gives space to previously unknown to me figures like Charles Evans Hughes, who, before becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, played key roles for several presidents in the first quarter of the twentieth century; and did you know that Dean Acheson had ties to Alger Hiss?

Of course, as seemingly every one in the foreign policy establishment does, he gives kudos to James Baker, who I mostly remember as Dubya’s consigliere during the 2000 recount/debacle. I’m trying to be broadminded about him, but it’s not easy. However, President Trump made it easier to look at previous, failed Republican presidents and say to one’s self, well, at least he never instigated the sacking of our nation’s temple of democracy. He also compares Dubya’s vision to Kennedy’s and… I guess I don’t know enough to criticize, but the partisan in me rankles.

And a reminder, in case any reader forgot: the Vietnam-American War was a sad, embarrassing time in U.S. history. Also, not related to this book, but I saw a writer note this, but take a moment and think about your favorite Vietnam movie.

Is it Platoon or Born on the 4th of July or maybe Full Metal Jacket?

I ask because, that writer (whose name I sadly forget) noted that the answer to the question about Vietnam movies or books are invariably media about Americans… not about a Vietnamese person at all. Like a narcissist, it’s all about us.

He writes about, as he must, the famed Sovietologist (is that a real word, or did Foggy Bottom make it up?) George Kennan. I must confess that I have never read his ‘Long Telegram,’ but the description given of it makes it seem like Russia hasn’t changed since it was chief among Soviet republics.

On Not Getting Into Arguments

If a fact be misstated, it is probable he is gratified by the belief of it, and I have no right to deprive him of the gratification. If he wants information, he will ask it, and then I will give it in measured terms; but if he still believes in his own story, and shows a desire to dispute a fact with me, I hear him and say nothing. It is his affair, not mine, if he prefers error. -Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, November 24, 1808

We Are Safe

But not well. If you have been complaining that November’s election was illegitimate, you may not care, but you have been an integral part of a massive, collective feedback that has caused my child emotional harm. It has also resulted in deaths, but I am not ashamed to say that my child is my first priority.

I am a Democrat. I do not actually fall easily into categories beyond that, being progressive in many ways, but also centrist on many issues.

I did not vote for Trump. Going further than that, I did not vote for Bush. I did not like how shenanigans meant the latter won the election nor how the Electoral College meant that the choice of most Americans was not the man inaugurated in 2000 and 2016.

But I did not say they were illegitimate. I believed that the proper response was to organize to win during the next election, in other words, to use our small “d” democratic process to make change.

That is the difference.


‘Theory’ (in the context of the humanities) and ‘critical theory’ (and especially ‘critical race theory’) find themselves frequently despised. Well, Anne Anlin Cheng’s Ornamentalism falls squarely into that camp.

Though short, if you do not like those categories, you won’t like, even if it won’t take you long to read.

I am always trying to be a ‘good’ white man and especially to be a good, white father to an non-white appearing daughter and I try to welcome challenges to my understandings (and, yes, prejudices).

The author struck me to the heart of the unseen biases within myself. I was most impacted by an off-handed line criticizing Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, a book that I adored, for failing to recognize how beauty can be terribly, damagingly racialized. It is so easy to see ‘my’ truth (a white, heterosexual, college-educated, middle class, man in America) as being everyone’s reality. Like Kant, I am constantly being awakened from my dogmatic slumber. It’s not always fun, but it is important.

Beyond that, it is about the Asian, female body. The body as clothed in exotic dresses, jewelry, headwear. The body stamped by prejudices (the assumption of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that unaccompanied Asian woman coming to America must be sex workers). The body as skin and flesh (naked, like sashimi; or, compared to porcelain). The body appropriated by white females.

Black Mountain Poems: An Anthology

My father knew one of the figures associated with Black Mountain College. He and his older brother had been friends with Fielding Dawson, a writer. While Dawson’s poetry is not in this anthology, he is name checked in the introduction, though perhaps it would have been better for everybody had they chosen to include something by him instead of whatever Buckminster Fuller was writing that he mistakenly believed to be poetry.

Rightly, the poet who gets the most space is Robert Creeley (though none of the included poems featured the off kilter pastoralism that I associate with him). Charles Olson, featured early, was the best surprise. Of course, I know who he is, but I really haven’t read him, and the long poems with their swaybacked stanzas and shifting thoughts really are amazing and clearly, I need to read more.