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: A Modern Prometheus


First, let me credit Professor Moses with being the first person I have read to refer to Thomas Jefferson as ‘the Count of Monticello.’ As someone deeply impacted by both Thomas Jefferson and Dumas’ epic novel of revenge, The Count of Monte Cristo, I applaud without reservation.

Jeffersonian agrarianism from Locke’s idea that property derived from making use of the land. Against speculators, rentier capitalism, and… American Indiana making ‘unprofitable’ use of the land.

On the whole, his criticism and occasional fury are well merited, I must allow. His showing that Jefferson was not the child prodigy and possibly not as intellectually gifted as Franklin and Hamilton feels a little petty, but is possibly a necessary corrective to Jefferson’s (unwarranted, I reckon Moses would say) reputation for such great intellectual gifts as inspired Kennedy to make his famous remark about Jefferson dining alone to a group of Nobel Prize recipients. He actually spends almost the entire chapter on genius casting shade on Jeffersonian claims to it, before ending that chapter by concluding that, yeah, he actually was pretty darn smart.

Moses also made some nice references to Jefferson’s relationship to various works of history and philosophy, some based on direct knowledge (because Jefferson wrote down his thoughts) and some conjectural (like suggesting that Jefferson must have absolutely hated Plato’s dialogue, Crito).

I must also allow that when I defend Jefferson or feel defensive when he is attacked is possibly my own white privilege rearing it’s fish belly pale head.

I must also allow that this an absolutely terrific book. I don’t know who you are, reading this blog (besides my mother, of course), but whoever you are, this a fantastically researched, elegantly thought out work and you should read it.

I think I am the first to read this copy, which I borrowed from the library. The paper feels wonderfully new and so lovely to the touch. I remember in the Tin Drum, the narrator asking for a ream of virgin paper. This paper, too, feels virgin.

‘Conservatism: An Invitation To The Great Tradition’ By Roger Scruton


The Scruton-a-thon continues, which is both more fun and less dirty than it sounds.

Not unfairly, Scruton lays claim to Thomas Jefferson as one of his own because Jefferson’s radicalism was also a claiming of traditional custom and continuity which he saw as being threatened by the crown. Not unfair, as I said, but I am not certain that I am buying this particular bill of goods. Many of his positions, ideologies, and aims were, conservative (which is, also to say, classically liberal), but being so integral to a revolution that so altered the world… I can respect his effort and can, partly agree, but mostly feel that, in this, he missed the forest for the trees.

For an Englishman, Burke, of course, is a looming figure. And it is no surprise that Scruton, best known for his philosophical work on aesthetic theory should also be drawn to a man who is both considered a sort of founding figure of (post)Enlightenment conservatism and who made his reputation with an early work of aesthetic theory. And, on a personal note, I haven’t read Burke’s Reflections and I really need to.

His philosophical chops are shown off in some nice explication of the notoriously tortuous Hegel, who gets nearly equal billing with Burke as a founding father of conservatism. In his Hegelian interlude, he returns to something I noticed in an earlier book, Roman household gods. He seems to see this as being a very important example of how custom and tradition, even in the absence of genuine belief, are vital (and conservative) glues for societal cohesion.

When I read Scruton, I think of a good friend of mine. We met in a very liberal college environment and he felt a certain need to rebel, which meant playing up the more conservative aspects of his character. I have always believed that what he really wants to be is a Republican, but he is held back by the fact that Republicans tend to be so terrible and their ideas genuinely stupid. This friend would desperately love Republicans to be more like Roger Scruton instead of what they are, a collection of dimly thought-out ideas and a pathological commitment to giving money to the very wealthiest people and taking that money from the very poorest, laced with some shouted, but never acted on verbiage about abortion.

I listened to his lectures before reading any of his books and his sonorous voice comes through here, lightened with asides like calling John Ruskin a Protestant Chateaubriand, ‘but manifestly without the Frenchman’s immense sexual prowess.’ If Ross Douthat could produce clauses like that, I might think him less of a douchebag producer of notably thin and precious gruel (did I ever tell you about the time he came my church and got up and left early with his whole family, just before a second collection; maybe he had an unrelated reason but staying an extra ninety seconds would both have made him seem less a cheap hypocrite and me less likely to taste vomit every time he gets on his pious, ultramonatist high horse).

Philosophy: Principles And Problems


I did not read Philosophy: Principles and Problems, or rather, I did read it. It turns out, it is just a reprint of The Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy.

The main difference is that the conservative, more or less intellectually-minded imprint, Bloomsbury, changed the title. My guess is to make it sound less populist and more… I don’t know. High-minded.

Whatever. I got from the library in an orgy of Roger Scruton borrowing, so I guess, not much lost. Perhaps even a net benefit because I might have gained some small amount of muscle from carrying it home. Not much though. It’s an even smaller book in this edition.

‘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.

‘The Intelligent Person’s Guide To Philosophy’ By Roger Scruton


Like reading Heidegger on Nietzsche, you do not read Scruton to understand the topic so much as to understand and appreciate Scruton. Unlike reading Heidegger on anything, reading Scruton is a pleasurable and generally understandable experience.

He is also the sort of conservative that liberals like me love. Certainly, contemporary, burn-it-all-down conservatives of the Trump-Cruz-Rubio-Hawley variety would not appreciate. I would say, without too much to back it up, that his conservatism is uniquely English.

The conceits that drive this book is first that it does not pretend to be primer or history or proper summary of any kind, but rather a book which attempts to delve into the questions and philosophical ideas that he loves. The second is that each chapter ends on a question and the next offers a (sort of) answer.

An old fashioned, sort, chapter three is entitled demon, Descartes’, of course. Following a discussion of truth which I found surprising, because I didn’t find the expected semi-materialist foundationalism overlayed with a sort of nebulous Anglican theism.

But what did I learn about Scruton? His surprising, constant returns to Kant. His completely unsurprising belief in a horde of liberal moral relativists storming the barricades in nigh overwhelming numbers, seeking to banish Shakespeare.

That he probably wished to refute some philosophers as Johnson did Berkeley, but knew it would have been intellectually indefensible, but the desire remained.

That he likes to drop names, some famous (Kant, Spinoza) and some a little less known to the general public (McTaggart).

That despite his constant name dropping of Kant and references to Kant’s morality, when it really comes to the time to succinctly explain morality, he settles on Scottish Enlightenment style sentimentalist theories.

That he criticizes continental philosophy (which he also calls romantic) and praises its less well respected and read (in his mind, and probably in truth; at least, less read) Anglo-American, which is to say, analytic, philosophy, but is, himself, fairly clearly writing in a more ‘romantic’ tradition and very clearly is not a traditional Anglo-American philosopher.

That his ‘philosophy’ of sex is rather sweetly romantic.

That he probably blamed the Enlightenment for many things.

That his religious sympathies seem aligned with how he described Roman religion, which was about, in his description, attention to forms and rituals as social glue, rather than a deep belief. Honestly, you’d have expected him to be a High Anglican (though definitely not Anglo Catholic) on account of his cultural Toryism. I’ll also recommend this article from The Critic.

And, finally, that he is not an interesting philosopher. Like most philosophy professors, he is not even, really, a philosopher, I would say. Just a marvelous cultural critic (with whom I deeply disagree in many key ways) of the sort that one can never be sure will be remembered in another generation.

Jefferson On Philosophy


This is, more properly, about my having finally finished my little collection of Thomas Jefferson’s writing (with a short, mostly hagiographic biography at the very beginning). I have, of course, been chronicling those things which struck me upon reading. I have also been putting this down for many other books, including many about Jefferson himself. Despite my wrestlings, he still occupies my mind, rent-free. Something he has really done since I was a young child and my mother took to Charlottesville, Virginia and up the mountain to see Monticello. She preferred the simpler beauty of George Washington’s Mount Vernon home, but the erratic intellectual cacophony of Jefferson’s home stayed with me.

So what should I say about this book? I don’t know if the selected letters, which constitute the greatest part of the book, are the best selection possible, but I enjoyed them.

I can say that Jefferson is a fine writer. He has the belle-lettres excellence of the best eighteenth century scribblers and the clarity of the his English and Scottish Enlightenment influences (Locke, Hume).

I can say that he grew a bit resentful in his old age, with the late Alexander Hamilton still receiving approbation two decades after Burr’s ball felled him.

I suppose that I can say that I will continue to read his writings and writings about him.

And, that while not a philosopher, he might have made a fine one, except that his mind wandered towards too many other things. No matter. He has done enough to be remembered, loved, reviled, and revised without a philosophical magnum opus.

I do not think that it is a coincidence that the most obviously philosophical moments are from letters written later in life, when he stepped back from the business of being a revolutionary and a politician.

That said, in 1803, while president, he writes to Dr. Benjamin Rush about a conversation that they had in 1798-1799, before the contentious presidential election of 1800 about Jesus and moral philosophy. He begins to outline the ideas that would come to truest fruition in his ‘edited’ version of the Bible, but roams, comparing Jesus to figures of classical philosophy like Socrates, Epicurus (Jefferson, in other letters, suggests that he is an Epicurean), Epictetus, Cicero, etc, to the purpose of sketching out a moral philosophy (not theology) of Jesus.

He later writes explicitly about his sense of Epicurean philosophy.

Then, towards the end of his life, he wrote to John Adams and lays out an explicitly materialist epistemology (despite bad mouthing Hume and points, the Scotsman would have been proud, though its probably closer to Locke).

But even in the last case, the original topic or, at least, the topic which most directly led to his philosophical musings are religious ones. You cannot escape the conclusion that he is a Deist (in one letter, he praises the Unitarian Church for dispensing with the whole Trinity thing), but also that he ultimately considers religion to be a philosophical topic, rather than an issue of faith.

Jefferson On Epicureanism, In A Letter To William Short, October 31, 1819


In a letter to his friend, mentor, and former professor (from his days at William & Mary College), the Scotsman and an, by virtue of his teaching of Jefferson, important evangelist of the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment in American, William Short, Thomas Jefferson sums up his interpretation of the Epicurean philosophy:

Syllabus of the doctrines of Epicurus

Physical. – The Universe eternal.
It’s parts, great and small, interchangeable.
Matter and Void alone.
Motion inherent in matter which is weighty and declining.
Eternal circulation of the elements of bodies.
Gods, an order of being next superior to man, enjoying in their sphere, their own felicities; but not meddling with the concerns of the scale of being below them.
Moral. – Happiness the aim of life.
Virtue the foundation of happiness.
Utility the test of virtue.
Pleasure active and In-do-lent.
In-do-lence is the absence of the pain, the true felicity.
Activity, consists in agreeable motion; it is not happiness, but the means to produce it.
Thus the absence of hunger is an article of felicity; eating the means to obtain it.
The summer bonum is to be not pained in body, nor troubled in mind.
i.e. In-do-lence of body, tranquility of mind.
To procure tranquility of mind we must avoid desire and fear, the two principal diseases of the mind.
Man is a free agent.
Virtue consists in 1. Prudence. 2. Temperance. 3. Fortitude. 4. Justice.
To which are opposed, 1. Folly. 2. Desire. 3. Fear. 4. Deceit.

His description of how the gods interact with humanity does not just reflect the ideas of Epicurus, as we know them, but also deism (which, I would argue, reflects the beliefs of Jefferson and Washington, at least, among the Founders; though it is not typical of the mostly staunchly protestant thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, but rather of the French Enlightenment; of course, that greatest of all figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume, was almost certainly atheist).

Cicero On How We Know The Gods Exist (And An Implied Epistemology)


For the belief in the gods has not been established by authority, custom or law, but rests on the unanimous and abiding consensus of mankind; their existence is therefore a necessary inference, since we possess an instinctive or rather an innate concept of them; but a belief which all men by nature share and must necessarily be true; therefore it must be admitted that the gods exist. And since this truth is almost universally accepted not only among philosophers but also among the unlearned, we must admit it also being an accepted truth that we posses a ‘preconception,’ as I called it above, or ‘prior notion,’ of the gods.

Cicero, De Natura Deorum

Time Of The Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger And The Decade That Reinvented Philosophy


Besides the fact they were all important philosophers, the magician connection is missing. I don’t mean that I wanted some sort of connection of party tricks, only that it’s a little disappointing that this title clearly seems picked just because it sounded cool, rather than because it relates to some extended metaphor or thread which snakes through the book.

But it’s a good book. Enjoyable for academic and for more dilettantish readers of philosophy.

While it made me want to dig up my copy of Being and Time (which I read in college, but almost certainly failed to understand), I wish that the other philosophers, particularly Cassirer, had had their philosophical positions explicated in as much detail as Heidegger’s. But then again, Heidegger continues to loom large, even now, so perhaps it’s only fair.

Especially knowing how the story ended, I found myself deeply wishing that poor Walter Benjamin had ever gotten an academic posting and what could have been if he had ever gotten some semblance of stability in his life. C’est la via.