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.

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.

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.

Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism

I don’t mean to say it is not a well written book. It is even, dare I say, seductive. Nor that its points are not well taken. Ms. Applebaum brings a certain intimate knowledge of Eastern European and English politics.

I used to read her columns in The New York Times before the paywall was instituted (which I do not begrudge; I proudly subscribe to my own, local paper and some magazines, but like the multiplying streaming services, I can’t subscribe to them all), but it’s been a while and my understanding of her positions has faded somewhat.

So while reading all of her interesting anecdotes and well-made points, I keep thinking, who did she remind me of? Htichens? No, someone more… irritating. Then it hit me! Thomas Friedman! A well worn gasbag of a neoliberal, technofetishist, with a penchant for name dropping that would make Gore Vidal feel ashamed. Friedman was neoliberal masqeurading as center left and Applebaum was neoliberal who was rather openly center right (Tory, really, though her husband was once with the quite right leaning American Enterprise Institute), with solid smattering of classical liberalism. She doesn’t have Friedman’s veneer of Bernard Henri-Levy-ism (and neither try to pull of inimitable coiffure and sartorial exposures), but, yeah. A less irritating Friedman, but because his conclusions are always so facile and suspect, I immediately began to suspect her, too.

Which is not to say that she deserves to be splattered by drunken Pollock with Friedman’s bloviating brush. I’m just saying that I’m suspicious.

She also notes that some of what the new Trumpist conservatives (like… wait for it… seriously, she name drops… Laura Ingraham) says is ‘real.’ Why am I implicitly impugning it’s real ness through the use of what amounts to air quotes? Because the first thing she mentions on her list is cancel culture, which is – and I can’t emphasize this enough – not real. Unless you’re talking about our God-given, Constitutional right to have a talk show or be highly paid to write poorly research columns for that publication. Now, I am doing her slightly wrong, because she notes that it’s cancel culture on the internet, but… I’m sorry. No. There are lots of terrible things out there, but no. Just… no. But she does say that Laura Ingraham once went on a date with Trump and found him unbearable. So that gave me a small amount of pleasure that almost made up for one millionth of one percent of the hatred, violence, and chaos that demented t—t consciously stirred up.

The most interesting idea in Twilight, which she readily credits to others, is key the personality trait in those susceptible to a longing for an authoritarian society: not closed mindedness, but simple mindedness (her phrase, not mine; I would have looked for a less charged way to put it). A dislike of complexity leads to seeking guidance from figures who explain that the world is simple (and often a more than a little manichean). Diversity and different ideas and experiences cause anguish in those who thrive under simpler concepts.

The other (sort of) interesting idea is the medium sized lie. Unlike the big lie of old fashioned fascists, the still big but less gargantuan lie of modern authoritarian parties dominates. While she didn’t use this example, something like the incendiary references to hordes of immigrants at the southern border (arriving in caravans?) came to my mind.

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: 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 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.

‘From Dawn To Decadence: 1500 To The Present: 500 Years Of Western Cultural Life’ By Jacques Barzun

I knew of Barzun as one of one of the New York intellectuals of the fifties and sixties, but only knew of him; I’d never read him.

But after reading an essay by someone who knew him (I can’t remember where I read; some right leaning publication, I believe, but one of those who mostly try to ignore Trump and assert some intellectual legitimacy to the right), I thought I should rectify that.

For better or worse, all the library had was his immensely long, late in life, magnum opus.

A couple of things struck me while reading it.

First, a fascinating aside about Hamlet within another aside about Shakespeare. He points out that it is a modern understanding to think of him a vacillating. In fact, Barzun argues, he was being judicious in a difficult environment. It is no small thing to kill a king and dangerous if you fail; also dangerous if you succeed, because you are vulnerable in the short term to popular unrest or the ambitions of nobleman who sees opportunity in the inevitable chaos. That he was not indecisive is proven, he writes, by Fortinbras saying, upon finding the scene of slaughter at the end (I am giving nothing away, I hope), that Hamlet would have made a great king. Surely, if Hamlet were the waffling type, this would not be the case. He also suggests that Laertes is included to point out the contrast between an impetuous character and a careful one; Laertes’ recklessness makes him an easy tool for Hamlet’s uncle. It also nicely matched an interesting (but not great) production of Hamlet that I saw at the Folger, where the director challenged the actors and audience not to focus on psychology, but on the actions of the characters.

Second, I am an elitist. I already knew this. But Barzun is writing elite, cultural history. He is not Braudel. He’s not even a Durant. He is an apostle of high culture. And, well, I like reading about that. That said, his brand patrician elitism can elide decency and slip into something distasteful, as in his off hand, Malthusian remark about “the rapid increase in people as hygiene and medication recklessly prolong life.” He was in his nineties when he wrote this book.

What did I learn? Well, it is the sort of magisterial, grand work one doesn’t find so much anymore, so one does learn a lot. Too much to sum up. But…

I’m not sure that counts as learning, but his thesis that monarchism is the key to unlocking an understanding of the baroque was fascinating, even if I am not qualified to judge it.

His portraits of cities as exemplars of particular times – Venice in the mid seventeenth century or London in 1715 – are as masterful as they delightful, until they are not. Paris in 1830 is oddly, mostly about German thought. His pastiche of 1895 showed an unsurprising indifference.

It feels like, and this especially struck reading his reading of the twentieth century, that the figures he most enjoys are more contemporary ones whose style harkens back to the witty and learned diaries, essays, and criticisms of Samuels Pepys and Johnson and the men who filled the pages of the Tatler and its siblings of the eighteenth century. But he does namecheck Garbage, one of the great bands of the nineties (the 1990s, that is), even if disparagingly (in the context of band names that are… bad? Dirty? Filthy?)

Should you read Barzun? Probably. He is Eurocentric and not terribly interested in non-white cultures, but these deep flaws don’t make him unreadable. Indeed, he is a witty writer. Lines like “a thin slice of antiquity for a large spread of modern butter,” in reference to French baroque culture’s preference for Roman over Greek antiquity struck me very nicely.

‘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.