‘The Heavenly City Of The Eighteenth-Century Philosophers’ By Carl L. Becker


How did have I not read Becker before? He has the classic style of the great, witty, learned, essayists of the nineteenth century. This book reads like a sequence of connected essays, which, effectively, they are, being based on a series of lectures he gave. Becker’s name appeared before me while reading Garry Wills’ Inventing America; while arguing against Locke’s influence and for that of the figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, mainly Reid and Hutcheson (I hadn’t realized this was controversial).

Primarily about the francophone philosophes (francophone rather than French, so as to include Rousseau), with frequent attempts to loop in the Enlightenment figures of the American founding and into the Scottish Enlightenment, it makes eighteenth century philosophy a fascinating, discursive read, which is an apt metaphor for it.

Sadly, for me, he fails to stick the landing. First published in 1932, he waxes unhappily about Bolshevism and the socio-political tumult of nineteenth century Europe. While I don’t necessarily mind (if also don’t necessarily agree) with his grumpy reactionary-ism, he doesn’t connect it to his lyrical discourse on the eighteenth century philosophers, except perhaps to say, that was good and these are bad.

Inventing America


I loved this book, but mostly because it made me want to read other books. I’ve started reading Carl Becker, because Wills mentions him. I definitely need to read more Scottish Enlightenment (Hume, Home, Hutcheson, etc).

However, the argument itself seems… unnecessary today. That the Scottish Enlightenment was the critical intellectual yeast of the Founding documents does not seem controversial today, nor does relegating Locke slightly (though not so much as Wills does; he tries to dispel any idea of Locke’s political writings being an influence on Jefferson’s Declaration, which smacks of a lady protesting overly vigorously). He also leans heavily on finding references to Francis Hutcheson (followed by Kames, Hume, Smith, and only rarely Reid).

Wills writes that Lord Kames was Jefferson’s intellectual hero. Of course, Kames, Christian name, Henry Home, was David Hume’s uncle (Hume changed his name so that the spelling matched the phonetics) and Jefferson notably raged against Hume.

He spends as much time emphasizing the Declaration was not seen as a momentous documents at the time it was signed, only later becoming so (in part, through Jefferson’s own efforts to elevate it), as he does on the specific influences that this book is supposed to address. C’est malls vie, I guess.

I did learn things, though, or at least gain new perspectives. He provides new lenses through which to view Jefferson’s famed Head and Heart letter, provided by Scottish sentimental (which doesn’t mean what you think it means) moralism and Laurence Sterne. Incidentally, though I mostly fall into the camp of those who feel that the recipient of that letter and Jefferson did have a sexual relationship, though the letter suggests to me that our third president was an awkward lover.

Agony and Eloquence: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, And A World Of Revolution


Another book about the relationship between Jefferson and Adams; less formally innovative than the other, but a nice, brisk read, nonetheless. Some odd choices though. It focused less on than the bitter divide that kept them apart for over a decade and more on the things that connected them. For about half the book, it seemed to be using their differing views of the French Revolution as the lens through which to view these two men, but then it seemed to forget about it. Which was weird, because it spent at least fifty pages discussing important figures within the French Revolution. Was that just padding?

Also, kind of amazed how historians (mostly white, male historians) are still tip toeing around Sally Hemings. It was a terrible, terrible thing he did, because her age and lack of freedom meant she could not consent and wildly hypocritical. But he did good, too, and it need not be interred with his bones, and Antony might say, it we acknowledge his deep sins.

The Rise And Fall Of Classical Greece


Despite the Gibbonesque title, this is a not traditional history of classical Greece. It aspires to be more data driven, though spiced with classical learning. Sort of like a Jared Diamond who didn’t reach for tendentious assumptions with uncomfortable racial overtones.

An early example was identifying that, even though ‘Greece’ expanded to many places in the Mediterranean beyond Greece, the distinctly Greek city states (did you know that plural of polis is poleis, because I didn’t) were located in a narrow climate band that featured relatively mild winters and not too much rainfall. While the first seems natural, the latter is counterintuitive, but it seems the liked dry summers, despite the potential benefits to agriculture.

So, I was enjoying this right?

Well, kind of. I actually didn’t finish it. I don’t have limitless reading time and, frankly, I decided to allocate it elsewhere after getting about 100 pages into it. I prefer cultural history to economic history. If I read about classical Greece, I want more Empedocles and Pericles and less olive oil output. Just a personal preference, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think this book is worth your time, though, should you be so inclined.

Cyril Mango


I got this because it was the only thing in the library by Cyril Mango. I only heard about him an article mourning his passing, as a preeminent Byzantine scholar.

Ironically, his contribution is a remembrance of another deceased Byzantine scholar.

Look, obviously there were a bunch of other articles, but I just wasn’t feeling all those specialized pieces about Byzantine history.

First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned From The Greeks And Romans And How That Shaped Our Country


I loved this book, because it’s all about the stuff that fascinates me about the Founders, particularly Jefferson. Does not necessarily make it for everyone. But if you wish you read Latin (or if you do and wish that everyone else did, too).

One of the central claims is that the early period examined – sort of late late colonial to the early 1800s – was heavily influenced by Roman and Latin history and philosophy. Later, as ideas of classical virtue declined, Greek to precedence.

He closes with an epilogue that addresses contemporary issues, including Trump, and how classical learning, especially Latin, can help.

While I don’t disagree, he never properly made that case in the previous two hundred odd pages. Too bad.

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.