Jesus And John Wayne


John Wayne is an outsized figure in this book. Both the real John Wayne and the symbol. Whereas Bad Faith centered white evangelicalism’s turn to partisan politics in race, Du Mez centers it in gender and patriarchy and finds its origins much earlier in the twentieth century.

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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 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.

BadFaith: Race And The Rise Of The Religious Right


This book does not tell a new story. It is commonly understood that the evangelical political movement did not organically organize around opposition to abortion, but was woken from its Benedictine slumber by rulings that eliminated tax exempt status for whites-only schools, better known as segregation academies. Abortion was picked as the issue to speak about more publicly because the real inspiration was rather icky.

What is interesting is that Balmer grew up within the movement and has personally spoken with key figures like Paul Weyrich and was present for someone of Reagan’s less subtle dog whistles. It’s a short book, but while not an exemplar of style, does provide a pretty interesting and often insider’s view of the meetings and events that led to the evangelical movement becoming a right wing political movement, leaving behind, along the way, the social justice teaching of Christ.

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.

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.

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

Jefferson’s Religion


I am a Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other. – letter to Doctor Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803

Which, of course, is to say he was not, in any meaningful sense, a Christian.

The Horse And His Boy


The title does a neat trick. The Horse (usually capitalized because, if you are unaware of how all this works, the Horse in question is a talking, Narnian horse) comes first and he is the dominant figure. The boy (not capitalized) is his, not the other way around. But really, the book is about the boy, not the Horse and especially not about the girl.

This was my favorite Narnia book as a child, barely, but definitely, beating out The Lion, The Witch, and the WardrobeAnd I thought my daughter my like it. It’s a simpler story than that first Narnia book (and it was the first he wrote and, frankly, everything will make much more sense if you read them in the order he wrote them than if you attempt to retroactively place them in a chronology based on the timeline of Narnia, itself) and less allegorical. The stakes feel lower because, even though the hero, Shasta (the boy), saves the nice kingdom of Archenland, Archenland is only Narnia’s neighbor and not the home of Talking Horses and the like.

But, if you read it now, you will find a muted, but still nasty form of orientalist racism running through. Thankfully, the girl, Aravis, is from the more or less Middle Eastern style kingdom of this world (though, really, it’s less Middle Eastern than inspired by, I would guess, childhood readings of The Arabian Nights). She does get some decent characterization and growth and is a strong person with brown skin and black hair (like my daughter, to whom I was reading this). But this doesn’t make up for the moment when the titular boy is singled out for being blonde and fair skinned and obviously of northern stock and though never said, one can’t help but feel that we are supposed to feel that this makes him somehow better than all those vaguely Arabic chaps. Reading those bits to my daughter almost made me put down the book.

I also had not remembered that C.S. Lewis made the correlation between Aslan and Jesus clearer than at any other point before the final book in the series. He even puts in a parallel to the incarnation.

What, in the end, as a grown up living in the days after the death of George Floyd (which came after the death of countless others), did I take from it? Anything at all? It is an old fashioned adventure story, more similar to the serials of the 20s and 30s than anything else in Lewis’ oeuvre and I like those stories, for all their many faults.

The Dark Side Of The Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, And Spiritual Seekers In The Age Of Reason


In his intro, Fleming explains that the ‘dark side’ of his title is a kind hearted pun, rather than a hint that reader is about to enter the gloomy, sordid, and evil underbelly of eighteenth century France.

Various figures who are almost part of a Counter Enlightenment (and appropriate phrase, considering how often he alludes to the Counter Reformation) drive the stories he tells. It’s not an overarching thesis which drives him, so much as curiosity about certain individuals and ideas who seem so different from our idea of what the Enlightenment was.

Most were new to me or provided new perspectives (I knew about the Port Royal movement as an intellectual school, but not about some of the spiritual healers and relic veneration around it). I was disappointed, I will admit, at how little space the Rosicrucians got. I used to be a reader in conspiracy theories of a certain sort (the sort mocked in Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum) and would have liked to have seen it gone into a bit more. But a minor quibble, surely?

A larger quibble is what I hinted at a moment ago: how does this connect to the Enlightenment, beyond happening at roughly the same time? The occult strain within the Freemasons is real, but a chance to firmly connect them to the intellectual ferment of the age is sadly missed (just connecting it slightly to the gentleman’s club or the coffeehouse, the latter of which, predates modern Freemasonry, is not really doing it service).

In general, I confess to a general, though slight, feeling of disappointment. Disappointment because the book also feels a little slight. So many sections manage to feel undercooked (if always interesting). Alchemy is such a fascinating subject with a luxurious iconography and from this book I learned that… 18th century alchemy is a fascinating topic, with interesting iconography. Cagliostro is undoubtedly a fascinating and elusive figure and relevant to the topic… but did such a plurality of the pages theoretically devoted to him actually have to be an explanation of the history of L’affaire du collier (the infamous Affair of the Necklace)? I understand he was charged (and acquitted) in the matter, but is his distant involvement stupendously relevant to the history of spiritualism, occultism, alchemy, etc. in the Enlightenment? Similarly, there are two chapters on Julie de Krüdener, a writer who I confess to have never heard of before, and while her story is interesting and maybe relevant because she appears to be an early literary figure in the transition from Enlightenment to Romanticism, but that’s kind of a stretch (though he attempts to bridge the gap by tendentiously connecting her to a series of semi-mystical writers who she… met? read? as well as to a later obsession with numerology which he also connects to Tolstoy and… wait for it… The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galazy).

So, in conclusion (I sound Phillipa Chong now), I learned a lot, but a lot less than I would have expected about the supposed topic of the book.