Review: ‘Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics Of Enlightenment And The American Founding‘ By Darren Staloff


My critique would be this: we must take him at his word. He devotes some two score pages to a description of the Enlightenment (primarily the French Enlightenment; in the sections about the individual Founders, the Scottish Enlightenment gets many nods, but not so much here, though the distinctly non-French Kant does get a few mentions). In the 80-100 pages each of the figures gets, he describes their take on (and sometimes rejection of) various strands of Enlightenment.

But he does not much quote from them. Yes, he has extensive citations, but not owning all those primary sources (and also having a job and a family which takes up some of my time), I must accept his interpretations and assessments at face value. And, as I mentioned, I’m not one hundred percent on his vision of the Enlightenment (which sometimes bleeds into early Romanticism).

But on those assertions.

Adams, he claims, saw class conflict, as vital. It was the tension which preserves the Republic. If the aristocratic elite become too dominant, you have baronial oligarchy. If the masses win, some charismatic general, a la Napoleon, takes power. Interesting and also begging for some contemporary commentary (where he have a populist who simultaneously works to put the economic oligarchs in power).

One nearly unforgivable statement is that he writes it is ‘probable but not certain’ that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemming’s children, which is true (though by 2005, when this book was published, it would have already been more to say it is ‘nearly certain and widely accepted’), but what makes it so frustrating for me and what makes me question him, is that he goes on to cite the theory that it could have been his younger brother. That is a canard that had been used by unscrupulous historians and pseudo-historians for years to try and deny the heritage of his descendants by Hemmings. What makes this so much more frustrating is that Staloff is unstinting in pointing out the racism that undergirded too much of Jefferson’s public life, including how his own actions to drive American Indians (oh, and why does he insist in writing ‘Amerindian?’) from their land lay the foundation for Andrew Jackson’s later, genocidal actions.

In general, it was about Adams that I learned the most (though my trust in what he writes was deeply shaken by what he wrote about Hemmings in the final section, about Jefferson). It’s been many, many, many years since I that McCullough biography and the section on Adams spoke a lot more aspects of his presidency that had (to my mind) little to do with whatever point he was trying to make about the Enlightenment, but I didn’t know about his critical support for Haiti’s revolution, opening up relations with the revolutionary government and allowing American ships to bring needed supplies. Again, though, not clear how this relates to Adams supposedly somewhat skeptical view of Enlightenment ideas.

In fact, he doesn’t do a great job on how their actual political lives were or were not guided by their own takes on the Enlightenment. When he writes about the Enlightenment, he mentions the Physiocrats who can be directly linked to Jefferson’s agrarianism, but then he posits Jefferson as being a post-Enlightenment Romantic. And if the Physiocrats are an emblematic facet of Enlightenment, how does Hamilton’s singleminded focus on commerce and finance fit in? He does place the Enlightenment in a uniquely urban context, which fits well with Hamilton (and Adams, though he doesn’t make that point).

This is an interesting book, but frankly, the arguments are little muddled.

Ravelstein


You can, at least, say that reading Ravelstein makes you want to read more about and by Alan Bloom, who the title character is a not even really disguised version thereof.

I have read little Bloom. And only one other Bellow (Humboldt’s Gift; it liked me not, and while it inspired me to read some Delmore Schwartz, his poems discouraged me from reading more).

But my suspicion is that the only improvement this novel makes on reading Bloom himself (or a proper biography) is that Ravelstein is a much better name, with its towering, gothic overtones. Bloom is too comically joycean to be a really good name anymore, at least on a man.

I furthermore suspect that I would have better, in general, reading neither Bloom nor Bellow, but simply revisiting Isiah Berlin and Leo Strauss.

The book gets even weaker when it drifts from Ravelstein. The narrator, who is, as you might guess, a Chicago writer with too many marriages in a relationship with a much younger woman (intelligent, but not too intelligent; pretty, but not too beautiful; caring; understanding; indeed, the very perfect fantasy young wife of an old man), is not as interesting as he thinks. He is not uninteresting, but a long stretch where he goes to vacation to Puerto Rico, eats a toxic fish, has to be flown back to the United States, hallucinates in the hospital, and nearly dies, is completely unnecessary. Mortality is a theme that runs all through the novel, but this was, as I said, unnecessary. I didn’t read Ravelstein to spend so much time with someone improbably named ‘Chick’ (I kept thinking of Chick Corea).

I first started reading this book in 2004. I remember reading it a bar in St. Petersburg where my friend sometimes worked. I had left a position at an environmental nonprofit because the head of the Florida was a insufferable fool and a bit of a sadist. She wanted my job and pretending to ask permission. I was trying to read a paperback copy of Ravelstein. I don’t know where that copy went or why I decided I had to make another go at it.

Thomas Jefferson’s Argument For Atheist Morality


Thomas Jefferson was frequently accused of being an atheist (I tend towards those who suppose him to be a particularly secular Deist), but usually avoided commitment and included references to God (or someone similar) in his writings, particular the more or less public (I have been reading so much 18th century English writing that I almost spelled that ‘publick’) ones. An obvious example is the capital C Creator referenced in The Declaration of Independence. Read more

A Vindication Of The Rights Of Women


To me, the heart of her argument’s current value (assuming that we can all agree that women are not inherently inferior to men and don’t need to be told that anymore; though it is still almost certainly true the we do still need to be told) is an educational one (perhaps why she take special offense at the educational writings of Rousseau). Proper education leads to people of any gender becoming fully moral creatures. The failure to properly educate women leads to them lacking, in most cases, full moral agency. At the same time, the rearing of children, who we want to be grow into moral creatures, is left to them, so shouldn’t we educate them properly so that they can raise the next generation of moral agents? Read more

Ways Of Heaven: An Introduction To Chinese Thought


I begin to see why my wife criticizes my photography

Though not stated openly, Sterckx, for the majority of the book, sets Chinese thought as a sort of rivalry between Confucianism and Mohism. You can easily see a bias towards the former, though he is not unkind towards the latter (Legalism, however, receives only a lukewarm defense). Read more

Letter Of Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, To Alexander Pope


If this was not so clear in the previous letter I read, Bolingbroke has studied his s—t. He has named dropped in such a way that it’s clear he’s read them well Bacon, Descartes, and Leibniz.

My understanding is that Pope turned to Bolingbroke for philosophical counsel when writing his great Essay on Man. But no one has ever accused that poem of having more than moderate philosophical value (but great poetic value). Neither does Pope’s friend, whose philosophy seems to be, at its heart, Baconian, mixed with a dose of anti-clericalism (though knowing what I know, I expect that Anglican ministers are exempt from his rhetorically flourishing vitriol). He gets in a jab at Leibniz (which he spells Leibnitz):

Leibnitz, one of the vainest and most chimerical men that ever got a name in philosophy, and who is often so unintelligible that no man ought to believe he understood himself…
Good stuff, eh?

Letter Of Henry St. John, First Viscount Bolingbroke, To Sir William Windham


Various causes have made me want to read eighteenth century English political philosophy and other causes have made it less easy than you might suppose.

But this letter I found, and though I would have rather been introduced to Bolingbroke by other works, beggars can’t be choosers, especially in a pandemic and facing the uncertain financial consequences thereof.

This letter is not political philosophy, except that his constant appeal to party (he was a Tory) is a useful thing to keep in mind. Party loyalty, above all, seems to be his excuse. Excuse for what? Siding with the Pretender and supporting to Scottish rebellion of 1715 against George I.

If it is not philosophy it is a fascinating, if presumably biased and unreliable, history of a period I am not well versed on. He wrote the letter in an attempt to win allies who might secure his pardon, which is why he frames his support for a so-called pretender to the crown in terms of service to the Tories. It all sounds pretty weird these days. And perhaps scary as we see one party maintain mostly blind loyalty to a mostly willfully blind and cruel leader.

Oh… and he ends the whole thing with an aside that basically comes down, you can’t trust Catholics, even good ones, because Popery will always lead them astray.

‘Essays Towards A Theory Of Knowledge’ By Alexander Philip


Alexander Philip was, apparently, a Scottish lawyer with a penchant for philosophizing and a minor fame incurred by his theories and advocacy of calendar reform.

At first I was surprised by his quotations from interesting but lesser French thinkers like Diderot and Taine, but it soon became he was the sort of nutty dilettante who would merge Kantian with Viennese thinkers like Mach, so why not treat Diderot as a leading epistemologist if you’ve decided to go that route.

I was actually okay with his incorporation of action into time as a way of understanding periodicity and his idea of physical engagement with experience/sensation replacing Kantian categories as a necessary mediator, but when he rambles about energy, it is clear he read an Edinburgh Review article about the new fangled physics and got way ahead of himself.

He also manages to set upon a theory of consciousness that smacks of a reductive materialism without giving up on a more religious/spiritual idea of consciousness, which is possible if you work hard to not think about it too much.

And he has a wonderfully anachronistic habit of capitalizing words that don’t need to be, like Energy and Presentment (which, in my head, I always pronounce as if it were French, which makes it seem hella cooler).

Also, have I read this before? If so, that’s the second time that has happened to me lately. I actually think that I read another philosophical tract of his (which he references, refuting, he thinks, some critiques of it), but I can’t be sure.

‘A Warning’ By Anonymous


Anonymous is not an intellectual. S/he is not a member of the conservative intelligentsia. You may think that this is a good thing. A good advisor to the president need not be one, but it just seems to me that s/he wears their learning, such as it is, not so much lightly as shallowly. A few sprinkled quotes from the Founding Fathers and great leaders of the past (a bit of classical “learning” and the occasional snippet from the Gipper or, rather, his speechwriters) but their understanding of ethics, as a field of study is thinner than even that annoying Starbucks philosopher talking to loudly to his embarrassed girlfriend. They refer to classical thinkers because they both need to pad their moral case and because they want to show they know that stuff (I don’t think they really do; I don’t think they actually read Cicero’s De Officiis. I think they did more run just read a Wikipedia article, but something much less than actually reading him. Which, by the way, you should. He’s really good.

Anonymous could be seen as, despite their protests, another kind of emblem of Trump’s inability to attract the best, or even adequate, people. They seems like the kind of frat boy douchebag who was hoping for a Marco Rubio presidency. Someone shallow and shamelessly political, who has never had a real job, but who can do a passably tolerable impression of a man with some principles for the kind of reader who doesn’t read beyond the first two paragraphs of any newspaper not about a hockey fight or one of Marco’s Sunshine State compatriots doing something blissfully stupid involving alligators, the highway patrol, and a can of coffee that has been repurposed to hold his dope.

The anecdotes are frequently a mixture of the nonspecific and publicly known. You don’t need a senior administration official to tell you that John Kelly had a horrified look on his face when His Obesity defended the Nazis in Charlottesville.

There was one newish sounding nugget, though. When Trump is about to push a lawyer to do something patently illegal, he scans the room for people who might be taking notes and screams at them to stop.

Also, I think they are a man. But that’s neither here nor there and based on my own hidden prejudices, I suspect.

So why did I read another one of these Trump histories? I have sworn off them more times often than I have sworn to delete my Facebook account.

Well, the short version is that we were at the Northeastern Library (the little one was getting her first library card), which is an awesome library. Better, frankly, than the other two I visit regularly. The selection of books visible upon even a cursory examination were so exciting. Including this one. I should have known something was up when there wasn’t a waiting list, when it was just sitting there. Typically, these kinds of self flagellatory tomes have a longish waiting list of people ahead of you in the queue.

A sidebar or a point of personal privilege, perhaps. Anonymous gives us some classical tidbits. If you’ve ever seen the movie or the play The History Boys (and I highly recommend it), you might remember the term ‘gobbets.’ Little bits of poetry or seemingly irrelevant knowledge used to illustrate a point or just liven up the text. Anonymous does a lot of that.

Several of their ‘gobbets’ are about Athens. Going beyond the Athens of Socrates and Pericles, the city remained famous for centuries as the center of philosophy. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if it became a sort of university town in later antiquity. De Officiis is in the form of a letter to Cicero’s son (in fairness, they also knew this) who is studying in… Athens. Cicero slight laments that his son is studying under a Stoic teacher and asks him to look kindly upon the Skepticism of his own training. Gore Vidal writes, in Julian, about the titular emperor (in his pre-purple days) similarly going to Athens as a sort of intellectual finishing school.

Might not that Athens, the Athens long past its imperial glory and the days chronicled in Platonic dialogues, have also been wonderful? A place of nearly pure learning. To go as a young man and learn the arts of being virtuous or as an older man and bask in the golden light of a culture of philosophical inquiry? I say ‘man’ because I think it’s safe to say that it wouldn’t have been so nice to be a woman there, if better than many other places.

Oh, and someone, not me (I don’t write in books; not even my college textbooks), did a little freelance copyediting.

‘Beauty: A Very Short Introduction’ By Roger Scruton


When Roger Scruton died, it seemed well past time to read him. He’s been on my mythical list of authors to read for some time. In the short term, the options at the library were limited to this particular book. Pleasantly, I had to buckle down and finish it because someone else put a hold on it, likely also inspired by reading Abuut his passing.

I was reassured about my own openness to other points of view by reading this. I can appreciate and even find some points of agreement with intelligent, educated, and principled conservatives.

Scruton seems to want to settle on an enlightenment aesthetics. Specifically, the Scottish enlightenment of Smith and Hume. Kant gets plenty of love, but those two Scotch thinkers are his constant reference points. Unsurprisingly, art of the classical period to the eighteenth century seen to represent his idea of the best which artistic endeavor has to offer.