‘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.

The Prisoner Of Zenda

What a great book. I can’t even guess how many times I read this during my school days. A dozen times, at least.

When this article from the Post came out, praising it as a lost classic, I knew I had to revisit it.

And it’s just as good. Thrilling, romantic, brisk. Some fascinating twists and turns. In some ways, it reminded me of my beloved planetary romances, wherein, despite the presence of advanced weaponry, folks still use swords. Similarly, despite there being revolvers and despite seeming to take place in the 1870s or 1880s, characters consistently choose to use swords instead of guns. Why? Because it’s cooler, that’s why! What a silly question.

As the hero says, when asked if he intends to use a gun when surprising a group of six ruffians, “No; steel for me.”

Steel, indeed. Duels, seductions, disguises, nighttime raids. What more can you ask for?

Priest-Kings Of Gor

Like all of John Norman’s Gor novels, Priest-Kings of Gor is a rehash of Edgar Rice Burroughs more enjoyable Barsoom novels, except with some super uncomfortable ideas about the role of women and some crude and unsuccessful stabs at eroticism.

No, I can’t justify having read this book, except to say that, when I was much younger and prowling used bookstores, this series was ever present on the sci-fi/fantasy shelves.

The protagonist visit the home of Gor’s unseen rulers and learns that they are a race of intergalactic spiders who communicate by scent (I’ll say this much, Norman does a good job of describing and explaining this). He sort of forgets that they destroyed his city and scattered its citizens, including his ‘Free Companion’ (sort of like a wife), to places unknown and becomes friends with the spiders and… well, it’s exciting enough, but you’re better off just reading A Princess of Mars.

Just as a note, there is, apparently, a small Gorean subculture who participate in Norman’s deeply awful ideas of gender roles and sex, which mostly involves a belief on his part that women really want to be ruled by men and to call them master. It’s sort of like someone took an occasional, kinky date night idea and decided to do it every day and not just when the kids are asleep. It’s so weird. It also means that every female character is incredibly shallow and two dimensional.

If I Had Your Face

I liked this book very much. I liked it very much, but didn’t love it. Much of it was compelling and fascinating and, if accurate, gave me an illuminating view into an aspect or segment of women’s lives in South Korea that, arguably, my favorite Korean soap operas are not so likely to educate me about.

Many of the characters (it is a set of women in their twenties living in the same apartment building) are intriguing and draw you, but the author does seem to lose interest in some of them (the poor pregnant and married Wonna gets very short shrift) and become more interested in others, which makes one ask, should she just have written about those two? Also, a non-point of view character goes on to have an outsized (and mostly positive) influence on how things end for everyone and I rather wished we had gotten to hear her thoughts; she seemed pretty darn compelling, more so than some others.

‘The Tiger’s Daughter’ By K. Arsenault Rivera

This book was beautifully written, but maybe not written for me, if that makes sense. In some senses, it is a very long fairy tale about two born for each other lovers.

The lovers are both noble (one, technically royal; the niece of the emperor and his heir, due to a lack of children) and both female. This is not presented as being truly insurmountable. I would compare it to being lesbian in the early nineties or eighties. People know ‘it’ exists and maybe even know some people who are queer, but its acceptance is limited and so are civil protections (which is not to diminish the challenges and harms that LGBTQ+ people faced and still face).

There is some kind of a dangerous threat to the empire from demons who are nearly impossible to kill and whose blood can actually transform someone into a demon. Which all should be a bigger deal than it is. I mean, it appears as a trigger for an important plot point, but the presence of incredibly dangerous demons feels like it should be more of an ‘all hands on deck’ situation for any political body than it is treated here.

I have, until now, skipped over the second item for which this book was best known when it first came out (the first was the queer love story). That is that it is not a western fantasy, but takes places in an empire based on China.

And it gets one big thing very, very right. China is huge. China is diverse. China has tropical jungles, freezing mountains, grasslands, temperate zones, steppes… pretty much every kind of biome you could imagine. From this follows there are many different cultures and languages. Generally, when one thinks of China, in a western context, it is of what primarily emerged from Han culture (I say this being not at all a China expert). This books gets it right. The two protagonists are from different cultures. One is from the ‘Han’ imperial culture. The other is darker skinned and from the steppes.

Review: ‘A Greater Music’ By Bae Suah

The unnamed narrator, who admits to writing this book (most books written in the first person don’t actually, to my memory, admit that, yes, they are writing a book or something or whatever) is a Korean woman of undefined age (though probably in her twenties) who tried to learn German by living in Germany and who evinces an interest in cold, Teutonic places.

There is no plot; it is the narrator slowly trying to work out the end of a relationship with a woman M (never named beyond that initial; everyone else gets a first name, but no surname). The book begins with her visiting a sort of boyfriend named Joachim who is best described as the opposite of M. Not just that he’s male, but that he is often self consciously anti-intellectual (M being an intellectual of sorts; a writer and researcher on and lover of classical music) and blue collar laborer. It’s not clear how she met him. When other romantic incidents are noted, the other person is a woman (a woman named Sumi, who reminded her of M; and an Icelandic woman who approached her, mistaking her, she said, for her ex-girlfriend).

It took time to hook me, not in the least because it took time for the narrator to finally, honestly grapple with M. As the partner of someone who immigrated to the United States, I also felt sympathy for the challenge of the narrator needing to break things off with M because, well, she couldn’t stay, not legally.

Would I recommend it? I suppose I would. If you like slow, slightly dreamy, yet also quotidian books operating almost but not quite in stream of consciousness style, you might like it. Best I can offer. Also, it’s quite short.

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.

Harry Crews In The Little Free Library

The late, great Florida writer, Harry Crews has been mostly forgotten, but here you can see his greatest (in my mind) work, Feast of Snakes. Seriously. Read it.

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).

‘Devils In Daylight’ By Junichiro Tanizaki

The gleeful eroticism of an early scene, when the narrator (and reader/audience stand-in) looks through a hole in a wooden wall and sees the back of a woman is simply delicious. He can, he says, count the soft, fine hairs on the back of her neck. The whole feeling is heightened by the feverish nature of the novel, driven partly by the more than slightly unstable trust fund man-child who drags the narrator into the mystery.

The ‘mystery’ moves so quickly, that there is no time, really, to puzzle it out. We depend on the deductions of our friend’s fevered mind and his musings on the sexual perversions of women that drive them to kill (we really do get a front row seat to his obsessions).

You may have noticed that I put the word mystery in inverted commas earlier. That’s because it is not a mystery, but a very freaky psychosexual drama wherein a man is willingly conned out of all of his money in order to participate in his thanotic/erotic desires.

Very, very weird.