American Scripture: Making The Declaration Of Independence


Described as a bit of a broadside against Garry Wills’ earlier book on the subject, rather than situate the Declaration within a pan-European intellectual environment, with special attention to the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment, Maier is more interested in a strictly American context. The state and local proclamations that preceded it, for example. She is not terribly interested in the philosophical background of it (though she is interested in the philosophical implications).

If I’m honest, I found Wills to be a better writer. This is partly because I wasn’t too interested in the straight revolutionary history that makes up the first third or so the book.

Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins Of The American Republic


This wonderful, if sometimes clunkily written, book is a series of long digressions on figures of deep influence to the intellectual leadership of the American Revolution and America’s founding. He begins with a discussion of two lesser known Revolutionary figures, Ethan Allen and Thomas Young, who wrote stridently ‘Deist’ (really, atheist) works. Theoretically, it is about the influence of Deism on the founders, but really, it’s about making sometimes tendentious, but always interesting arguments for another layer of philosophical forebears beneath accepted intellectual forefathers like John Locke.

So how does that work in practice? A long discussion of Epicurean cosmology and how it (supposedly) informed the intellectual climate that directly influenced Revolution figures (mostly Jefferson and Franklin; though this also undercuts the idea that these were foundational, since in their learning and interests, they were sui generis). Spinoza is brought up early and often and is taken to be a key figure whose ideas were behind all the most influential ideas of those most directly connected to the ideas of the Revolution.

I’m not sure that Stewart was all that deeply interested in writing a book about the intellectual history of the American Revolution, but rather that it made an easier sell on his actual book, a fascinating look at two marginal figures of the American Revolution combined with an expansive view of the influence of Epicurean physics and places Spinoza at the center of the Enlightenment (yes, he makes a point towards the end that Spinoza is an ‘early modern,’ but in context of the whole book, he is clearly shifting the Enlightenment backwards a good bit, moving it’s beginning to Spinoza and Hobbes).

Stewart is himself a materialist of the Spinozan variety (he wrote an earlier book about the Dutch-Iberian philosopher), I would hazard by his good natured glee when writing about it. I don’t mind a position, in that respect, especially when it is joyful in its advocacy, rather than disrespectful in it.

I enjoy listening to (and usually disagreeing with) some of the podcasts and YouTube videos put out by the gloriously titled “James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding.” I will give them credit for introducing me to the philosopher Daniel N. Robinson and also for aiming to influence the legal community in a specific conservative direction. Unlike the Federalist Society, which is really just a political organization dressed up in judicial clothes, the James Wilson Institute has a very specific legal philosophy around natural rights, which also puts it in opposition to the current trend of pretending to be originalist (natural right theory is not orginalism).

I bring this up because Steward waits until the book is nearly done to bring James Wilson (a Founding Father who is not obscure, but, let’s just say, sits in the second tier) up and goes on to describe him as: avaricious, socially ambitious, lavishly educated

Ha.

‘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.

War For Eternity: Inside Bannon’s Far-Right Circle Of Global Power Brokers


So, there’s this insane right wing, slightly racist philosophy called Traditionalism. When capitalized, it means something very specific, more than a little occult, and deeply weird.

It’s non-fiction, but most resembles Umberto Eco’s great novel of occult paranoia, Foucault’s Pendulum. Listening to Teitelbaum’s breathless accounts of conversations with right wing esotericians, I keep thinking of Eco’s narrator and his encounters with important seeming occult thinkers.

This is also because, even though Teitelbaum repeatedly presents himself as a scholar (specializing, apparently, in right wing ethnomusicology, which doesn’t sound like a real thing), he doesn’t write as on. One review said he seemed a bit star struck by Bannon, but beyond that, the book is more of a mostly chronological account of his descent into crazy town, with Bannon as his Gandalf (a wise man who tends to disappear and then reappear, offering wise words). I also pick up hints of Bernard Henri-Levy, in it. The globetrotting name dropping and the self-importance of it all.

He acknowledges the book was rushed and it has a breathless quality, like he’s embarked on a mystery he must solve : Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Traditionalist. He uncovers clues, only to find that it wasn’t clue, only the self-important ramblings of a minor figure that no one cared about. It also has a chronological quality; it is more or less directed by the timeline of his interviews with Steve Bannon.

I learned that the godfather of traditionalism is the French philosopher, René Guénon. I have somewhere his book, The Multiple States of Being, which I haven’t read. It was given to me by an acquaintance; later, I figured out that giving me that book was his way of expressing his romantic feelings for me. Having learned from this book that Guénon helped found a neo-fascist movement makes that seem an odd choice, but I’ll give that acquaintance the benefit of the doubt.

However, my main takeaway from this book is this: Bannon and I used to frequent the same metaphysical bookstore in Los Angeles: The Bodhi Tree. Did I ever see him? Maybe. Would I have recognized another shaggy, middle-aged white dude as the future political strategist for the apocalypse? Meh.

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.

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.

The Return Of (Bar)Timaeus


Today’s reading featured a blind (but soon to be sighted) man named Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus.

I perked up because Timaeus is also the name of my least favorite (this far) Platonic dialogue.

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.