I borrowed it from the library, but with everything I had going on, especially the other reading I needed to do, it was clear I wasn’t going to have time to finish it before the due date (there was a long-ish waiting list for it). So, I pre-ordered the softcover version (because, as much as I want good books to succeed, that doesn’t mean I have to pay for a hardback copy; especially since it was so much less awkward to hold and read the paperback, even an oversized one).
It is not about Transcendentalism, but about the town of Concord, Massachusetts from the 1790s to mid 1840s. The opening history is about the town figuring out how to memorialize its role in the Revolutionary War and it closes with Henry David Thoreau giving the lectures that would make up Walden. It’s a close reading of the history and archives of a particular place that happened to have been very important in American history.
The structure is a thing of magic. It manages to move chronologically through time, while, at the same time, being arranged thematically. There is a section about religious change, as the long-time minister of the official church moves towards Unitarianism and rival churches are formed. There is a section about the rise of manufacturing. And, of course, there is a great deal about Ralph Waldo Emerson, though he does not dominate the book, because it is, ultimately, social history, not intellectual history.
I had always Gilson described as being a sort of Christian existentialist (people felt the need to add ‘Christian’ because figures like Sartre made their atheism such an important part of both their public image and the problem they attempted to solve). It took me a while to see it until I then read a bit of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, another Catholic thinker (better known as a theologian than a philosopher, though the difference feels hazy to me). Balthasar is a German and Gilson is French, but in terms of how their tendencies towards a sort of existentialism played out, Gilson is very much in the Heidegger mode, concerned with capital ‘B’ Being, whereas Von Balthasar has Sartre’s concern with freedom.
Gilson is attempting to reassert a sort of primacy for beauty. In. formulation of Being, Beauty, and Truth, many times, religious thinkers will put Beauty to use in the service of helping people experience the other two, especially Truth. Gilson seems to have Truth and Beauty emanate more or less equally from Being.
A lot of what he writes in The Arts of the Beautiful seemed to miss the point, to me. He made a mention of something resembling Stendhal Syndrome, and this helped confuse me, because he is not writing for the person who experiences art, but only about making art (in fact, his main point is that art is not a form of knowing, but or making; which doesn’t really make sense for the viewer, I would say). Once you get that, it all, more or less, makes sense.
I won’t write too much here, mostly because I’m thinking about doing something longer on this work, which inspired me in an unexpected way.
I was supposed to read Joseph Ratzinger’s book of the same name, but accidentally purchased this one and am very glad that I did. Especially because it feels especially relevant in light of His Holiness’ statement on the use of the Latin or Tridentine mass as a tool of division by groups that are sometimes referred to as Radical Traditionalists or ‘Rad Trads’ (which is stupid, so don’t use it).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.