The Symposium (Again)

I re-read this again, again. I’m not actually sure how many times I’ve read it, but I was happy to do so one more time.

But it’s not my favorite Platonic dialogue, though it is my second favorite depiction of a classical party after the one in Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods. I will also digress to say that Iearned that the traditional Greek symposium in classical Athens featured very shallow bowls for drinking, instead of cups. Part of attending such a drinking party was a test of one’s ability to hold your liquor; being able to hold and drink from your bowl and not spill it was a sign of manhood and maturity. You were in control of your emotions and body (incidentally, that is why the statues of male figures from that time can feel… inadequate; priapism was a sign of a man whose rational mind was not in charge; conversely, a resolutely unaroused member was the sign of a real man).

In this and in the Phaedra’s, I find myself less tolerant of Plato’s anti-democratic tendencies seeping through, like water from a leaky pipe into the walls and ceiling. I was accused of always thinking that Plato is writing political philosophy, which is resolutely false. But I feel that that democracy and it’s susceptibility to demagogues, for which he blames Socrtes’ death, is his bête noire and it bubbles up in his diatribes against popular rhetoric, which appear not just in the Gorgias, but throughout his works.

‘Liberalism And Its Discontents’ By Francis Fukuyama

Ten years ago, if you had told me that I would have read this much Fukuyama, I would have laughed at you. Though, I should hedge that ‘this much’ – most of his recent books have been pretty short.

He suggests he is making an argument for classical liberalism, but I would suggest that he’s really making the argument for liberal democracy. I say that because he is not deeply interested in economic issues.

It’s a short and useful read. While not its purpose, the book makes another argument that the American right is unknowingly carrying the banner for postmodernism and French theory, most recently for mimicking Foucault’s theory of power and science in its arguments again mask mandates and vaccines.

Baptism Of Fire

I am done with these Witcher novels. I’m enjoying the Netflix series. I tried playing the video game, but just wasn’t up for learning anything new on that front.

I will simply repeat what I’ve said before: the titular Witcher, aka, Gerald of Rivia, is much better as the star of short stories than as the protagonist of a novel.

Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past

This book should probably be assigned to high school seniors. From debunking the image of Sam Adams as a rabble rousers and pointing out that everything in Massachusetts besides Boston had been in revolt and not under British control for a year prior to ‘shot heard ’round the world.’ The bit that was new to me was that Patrick Henry’s ‘Liberty or death’ speech was written by a guy named William Wirt, who wrote Henry’s biography in the early nineteenth century and reckoned with the fact that Henry didn’t write much down, including his speeches.

Raphael brings up that we really do not teach the Revolutionary period of American history after the fifth grade in the United States. I’m not sure if that tracks for my experience, but it sounds about right. And part of the problem is that teaching fifth graders, he argues, plays into a more binary sense of morality.

Anyway. Read it.

The Vietri Project

What a terrible disappointment. Gabriele, an interesting, traumatized young woman with dual U.S-Italian citizenship who works at a bookshop in Berkeley, California becomes powerfully intrigued by a customer named Giordano Vietri. Vietri orders from his apartment in Rome huge numbers of books on academic and mystical topics. Eventually, our protagonist feels compelled to track him down, leaving her boyfriend and aimless life in California to go to her mother’s homeland. She reconnects with family while she attempts to track down the mysterious Vietri.

He had been captured by the British in World War II, he had been the neighbor of a painter who was also a journalist and anti-fascist activist. What was he searching for in these books? Who was he?

We never know, because she decides it is less important than… I don’t know. I don’t feel I got a better answer than “I met a nice guy who is better and more mature than the young men I have been casually hooking up with.” I don’t really care who she sleeps with, though her attitude towards sex seems portrayed as being an expression of maternal trauma (her mother was schizophrenic).

I do care that this story is much less interesting than the tease of the mysterious Giordano Vietri, who is dropped as if the author got bored of writing the book looked for an excuse to end it.

The Time Of Contempt

The second novel of the Witcher series, it’s better than Blood of Elves, but not as good as Last Wish nor Sword of Destiny, which were a short story collections. If you’re watching the series, the second season diverges strongly from the books (the first season pulled heavily from the short stories), though viewers of both will pick up on something that was mentioned at the end of the second season and is clearly foreshadowed in the book (though I might not have guessed had I not seen the series).

One interesting thing is that the titular Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, is made smaller. He is badly injured by the end and is also portrayed as being relatively small compared to the power wielded by wizards (including his sometimes lover, Yennefer).

‘The Lost Cities Of Africa’ By Basil Davidson

This 1959 book is a reminder that even someone who was relatively forward thinking on racial issues can still come across as pretty cringey now. But I appreciated that Davidson frequently reiterated that the civilizations of ancient and medieval Africa were both uniquely African, i.e., not founded by Phoenician, Arabic, or Person settlers, and the equal or superior to other, contemporary world civilizations.

But, the options for a book on African civilization before the Europeans began conquering and generally messing stuff up were limited and I learned a lot.

I imagine many readers will already have had some awareness of Kush and perhaps the Mali empire and its literary center of Timbuktu, but learning more was a pleasure. What I most enjoyed was reading about the strange isolation of the southeastern kingdoms. They did not interact much with other African cultures, but instead looked east to their trade across the Indian Ocean with the empires and kingdoms of Indian and China.

Tocqueville: A Very Short Introduction

I read this not so much because I wanted to learn about Alexis de Tocqueville (I read Democracy in America many years ago, but could stand to dip into it again), but because I wanted to read something by Harvey Mansfield and this was all the DC Public Library had. My YouTube blackhole led me to Bill Kristol’s channel (Conversations with William Kristol), specifically to an interview with Harvey Mansfield about Leo Strauss. I used to see Kristol all the time; he and I got our coffee at the same dinky coffee/bagel place on the ambiguous border between downtown and Dupont Circle, near the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle. It felt like a personal affront. But, he’s anti-Trump and I try to be relatively broad-minded, so I was feeling generous with my time (and also, I like to fall asleep to videos like that). Well, I can still say that Bill is a shallow and tendentious thinker, but he does sometimes like to talk to interesting people are not shallow and tendentious.

So books like these are not really great introductions to either the supposed topics or to the authors of these little things.

Did I learn anything about Harvey Mansfield? That he is not afraid how the ‘liberal’ has been perverted to use it in something closer to it’s traditional sense (though I don’t necessarily agree with his hints at a more comprehensive definition, which somehow fails to primarily be about more or less free markets, rule of law, and respect for civic institutions). That he wants Tocqueville to be respected as a political philosopher, even if the man himself was dismissive of ‘philosophers’ (a fair point by Mansfield). Where he lost me completely was calling France of the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s ‘socialist.’ If you’re going to call Louis-Napoleon president and later emperor or a socialist country, you can’t just drop that remark and move on. Back that thing up, please.

Dark Rising: Magic And Power In The Age of Trump

Does… does… does Gary Lachman believe in Chaos Magick? And, yes, that’s how he spells it. Because Aleister Crowley spelled it that way.

There is some fascinating stuff about how, similar to other fascist groups, the alt-right has developed connections to occult ideas and, yes, The Power of Positive Thinking is, when you think about it, simultaneously stupid and weird and vaguely occult (and cultish).

The stuff on Traditionalism is slightly different from what’s in The War for Eternity, though not sufficiently so to justify itself.

But, but, but… does he believe it’s real? I spent most of the book asking myself, I am reading the work of a crazy man?

‘The Cartographers’ By Peng Shepherd

Ever since I read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, I have been looking for it in other conspiratorial novels about learning and books. The closes I have come is Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which I still recommend and now want to read again (which would be, probably, the fourth of fifth time).

The Cartographers doesn’t really come close, but it’s still pretty good. The villain’s motivation never really seems that evil (or, if it is, then the protagonists couldn’t have known about the really evil part, which is an underdeveloped criticism of a certain breed of technofetishism/technoutopianism) and their identity is rather crudely telegraphed about one hundred pages out.

But, listen, it’s still good. Not being as good as Eco or as good as one of my favorite novels published in the last twenty years can’t be the criteria here. I enjoyed and I’m glad I read it. I learned something about map making and the premise, which is held secret for long enough in the book that I don’t want to give it away here, is pretty clear. The primary protagonist is a pleasantly flawed, obsessive, and intelligent woman, even if the rest of the cast can feel a little thin.