The Phaedrus


Like the Symposium, I am enamored of The Phaedrus as a work of imaginative literature. Any contemporary writer would be jealous of how he draws and manipulates his characters, exposing them for the reader.

But again, his hatred of rhetoric, as something whose danger as a tool for demagogues makes it too dangerous, cannot be suppressed. And in that, a critique of democracy as something which killed his teacher Socrates.

Poor Quintillian, I see how he felt the need to defend his career from such complaints.

‘Liberalism And Its Discontents’ By Francis Fukuyama


Ten years ago, if you had told me that I would have read this much Fukuyama, I would have laughed at you. Though, I should hedge that ‘this much’ – most of his recent books have been pretty short.

He suggests he is making an argument for classical liberalism, but I would suggest that he’s really making the argument for liberal democracy. I say that because he is not deeply interested in economic issues.

It’s a short and useful read. While not its purpose, the book makes another argument that the American right is unknowingly carrying the banner for postmodernism and French theory, most recently for mimicking Foucault’s theory of power and science in its arguments again mask mandates and vaccines.

Tocqueville: A Very Short Introduction


I read this not so much because I wanted to learn about Alexis de Tocqueville (I read Democracy in America many years ago, but could stand to dip into it again), but because I wanted to read something by Harvey Mansfield and this was all the DC Public Library had. My YouTube blackhole led me to Bill Kristol’s channel (Conversations with William Kristol), specifically to an interview with Harvey Mansfield about Leo Strauss. I used to see Kristol all the time; he and I got our coffee at the same dinky coffee/bagel place on the ambiguous border between downtown and Dupont Circle, near the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle. It felt like a personal affront. But, he’s anti-Trump and I try to be relatively broad-minded, so I was feeling generous with my time (and also, I like to fall asleep to videos like that). Well, I can still say that Bill is a shallow and tendentious thinker, but he does sometimes like to talk to interesting people are not shallow and tendentious.

So books like these are not really great introductions to either the supposed topics or to the authors of these little things.

Did I learn anything about Harvey Mansfield? That he is not afraid how the ‘liberal’ has been perverted to use it in something closer to it’s traditional sense (though I don’t necessarily agree with his hints at a more comprehensive definition, which somehow fails to primarily be about more or less free markets, rule of law, and respect for civic institutions). That he wants Tocqueville to be respected as a political philosopher, even if the man himself was dismissive of ‘philosophers’ (a fair point by Mansfield). Where he lost me completely was calling France of the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s ‘socialist.’ If you’re going to call Louis-Napoleon president and later emperor or a socialist country, you can’t just drop that remark and move on. Back that thing up, please.

The Essential Debate On The Constitution


I put this book on hold on account of Bailyn’s presence as an editor, even after my disappointment in volume of his own writing. Of course, it’s not really about him (his preface is remarkable in its brevity and lack of information), but about reading these late eighteenth century American political writings.

It’s easy to say that, wow, look at how literate and intelligent this discourse was, why can’t we be like that, but I’m certain there were plenty of broadsheets being passed around calling the other side out for scatalogical fixations. And, who knows that a hundred years from now, the four years (thus far?) of Trump’s reign may be collected in volumes depicting the debates of the age as a discourse between Ross Douthat’s melancholy concern trolling and David Brooks’ hand wringing exercises?

The argument in favor of ratification are well known due to the canonization of the Federalist Papers, some of which, like Federalists 10 and 30, are collected here (to the editors’ credit, they try not to simply collect Federalists, but to find other documents in support of ratification).

The arguments against are probably less well known, or, at least, were less well known to me. The rightness of the ratificationist cause was taught as an uncomplicated truth in my schooling. The writings of ‘Brutus,’ whose identity is not known for certain, I believe, part of the so-called ‘Anti-Federalist Papers,’ are particularly interesting and well written. That said, arguments that a federal government would take away state independence feel overwrought when states feel so presently empowered to pass whatever racist and discriminatory laws that their White majorities might want.

What struck me most was how suddenly prescient the warnings about the Supreme Court feel now. They feel almost prophetic, especially when you think that they were written before Wilson and Marshall instituted judicial review. The opportunity for unsupervised and unaccountable judges was well recognized then. I will admit to a certain ambivalence. I find judicial elections unnerving, because its feels like justice is vulnerable to being warped to support re-election.

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.