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?

While usually coached in broader terms (we should educate women and here is why), towards the end she takes time to criticize boarding schools and being soul crushing and advocates for classless (that, without distinction between social classes), co-ed, local schooling. She even suggests school uniforms to erase socio-economic signifiers.

Rousseau is a special target of criticism (and his views on women, to modern ears, are outlandishly retrograde) and she quotes liberally and at length from him, particularly from Emilie (where he discusses the hypothetical education of a Sophie who, it’s safe to say, does not receive the same level of instruction as her male counterpart). But while reading her takedown of him, I kept going back to an anecdote I read: James Boswell (of Johnson fame) had sought out Rousseau and ingratiated himself into his company and eventually escorted his partner across the English Channel, but also either seduced or was seduced by Rousseau’s lover. Shallow of me, I know, but while being inspired by Wollstonecraft to reject him, it’s humorous to think of him being cuckolded.

She also takes some time to reject the value of Fordyce’s Sermons. I know of these because there are mentioned by characters in the novels of Jane Austen (I think the Bennett’s unpleasant cousin reads from them). She rejects them because his writing is too florid and encouraging sensibility. As you might guess, she does not mean by sensibility what we mean. You might think of it as meaning being too emotional or not sufficiently rational. To return to Jane Austen, the title Sense and Sensibility might give you a clue that she, at least, does not think ‘sensibility’ to be what we would call sensible.

It’s not all education, though. While not well advanced nor elucidated, she seems to make an argument for something like a minimum basic income and also notes what psychologists now understand about how poverty itself leads to bad decisions. She speaks of how poverty can lead to a ‘frigid system of economy which narrows both heart and mind.’

A touch of patriotism stirred my heart as I read this line:

But the days of true heroism are over, when a citizen fought for his country like a Fabricius or a Washington, and then returned to his farm to let his virtuous fervor run in a more placid, but not less salutary stream.

She takes a moment in the final chapter to advocate for healthy living. Nothing fancy: diet, exercise, and listening to legitimate medical professionals. I say legitimate because she singles out some quacks, among them ‘magnetizers.’ Interestingly, her daughter’s famous novel was inspired by curiosity about new and sometimes quackish ideas about life and health. Also, interesting: quacks are still selling magnets for health benefits today.

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.

I Almost Didn’t Finish ‘The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American’


Not because he doesn’t make good points, but they are too strident and not new and I wasn’t feeling patient. But I persevered.

I know that George Washington was famously present in church, but would neither stand nor kneel nor take communion.

I know that Franklin tended to think that religion was a useful opium for the masses.

And that Jefferson was not a Christian in any useful sense of the word.

I also know that right wing people are using Christianity as an excuse to peddle corporate tax cuts and their own neuroses.

So if I’m going to read about this, I expect to learn something in the first fifty odd pages, but somehow failed to. And I don’t think it’s my fault.

The Bible has many issues. Or rather, I have many issues with much of the Bible. Seidel lays them all out, but I didn’t pick up a book on why the Bible is contradictory or even hypocritical, but rather (I thought) on constitutional issues. And you lose a certain status which contributes to credibility when you are so gleeful about it.

At some point, I finally realized my objection. Seidel quotes and references Christopher Hitchens several times and it was after reading one, particularly Hitchensesque Hitchens quote that it finally became clear.

I wanted to read a book about constitutional history, theory, and practice.

If I had wanted to read a screed against Christianity, I would have picked up a copy of one of Hitchens many books with such things. While I might not have agreed with his ultimate conclusions, I would have been greatly amused by the last, great eighteenth century political wit of the twenty-first century.

‘Lincoln’ By Gore Vidal


One of his most famous novels (second only, these days, perhaps, to Burr), but I was somewhat disappointed. The quality improves immensely towards the end, but I am trying not let the magnificent writing of the last quarter of the novel (and recency bias) to make me overlook the first seventy-five percent. Part of the improvement is that he mostly drops – until the very end – a subplot about one of Booth’s fellow conspirators: a callow fellow named David. The less of him the better!

His Abraham Lincoln is compelling but too distant. Aaron Burr loomed large and his young protege interested; and in my own favorite, Julian, the titular emperor and his two chroniclers are compelling, catty, and captivating. No one steps up so in the absence of Lincoln.

The writing is good, but not great. I believe that he understands the politics of the time pretty well and he is a good commentator on the realpolitik of eras predating ours. And his small details are wonderful. For example, we generally see General George McClellan as a ditherer, who let the war drag on. But Vidal portrays Washington society as worshipful of the man they called ‘Young Napoleon.’ I hadn’t realized he was so young, much less that he was ever compared to Napoleon, but I trust the author enough to believe it (though I will hold my fire on the venereal controversy).

But it is not enough. Perhaps one wishes that he had dived deeper into Lincoln’s psyche and written from his perspective.

To the reader, Lincoln sits opaquely, fascinatingly at the center, but for much of the book, the characters who orbit the man view him as a weak figure, easily stymied by his generals and hangers on and a man of wan, waffling convictions. I mention this because though I cannot for the life of me remember the title, I recently read a review of a newish history that suggests just that: Lincoln was actually rather weak and most of the credit for victory should go to the so-called Radical Republicans.

‘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.

The Plot To Betray America


I thought I was done with these kinds of books, but I read a good review and the wait to get it from the library wasn’t long, so here we are.

While acknowledging that, yes, Trump is incompetent and ignorant of the sort of basic facts known to a person who reads the Sunday edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer once a month, the focus is on the creeping influence of Russian intelligence agencies over him. It’s nothing we didn’t already know, but set down so clearly and altogether… it creates a sensation of, oh yeah, I forgot our president is basically a Russian asset. Followed by a sensation of, well, that sucks, doesn’t it?

Jefferson’s Three Laws


In an otherwise only marginally interesting answer to the question of whether the United States should renounce its treaties with France until it had established a government. While it’s not clear who needs to establish a government, because both countries had some ups and downs, the date of 1793 suggests it was France that needed to sort itself out.

In terms of practical politics, of course, America needed to adhere to its earlier treaties, barring some truly exceptional occurrence (the French Revolution, arguably, would qualify).

Here is what caught my eye:

The law of nations, by which this question is to be determined, is composed of three branches. 1. The moral law of our nature. 2. The usages of nations. 3. Their special conventions.

It’s an interesting bit of morality, couched in enlightenment terminology (Lockean?), which seems out of place in the Jefferson I have been reading.