Category Archives: Reading Life
As some of you know I have taken a hiatus from public writing since the death of my son 10 months ago. I have made several attempts to get back to writing about books and literature and have not quite been able to do it – though I have continued to write privately and have written quite a bit on my blog about losing Jesse; but writing about anything other than Jesse and seeking eternal truth has been difficult. This week I was contacted by an author who asked me to write a book review of a new biography about Claude Shannon, a 20th century genius and, apparently, father of information theory. I love biographies and know very little about Claude Shannon, so this seemed like a good opportunity to get back on the writing wagon. I agreed to do it.
As for books in general, since Jesse died my reading life has fallen into two categories: accounts of near death experiences and novels by PG Wodehouse, author of a zillion humorous books, not one of which I had read before Jesse died. As of today I have read a dozen of them and plan to keep going until I’ve read them all. I find PG Wodehouse gives me breathing space — temporarily transports me out of the heaviness of grief and into a lighter space where rich British people say clever things and constantly get themselves into outrageously awkward situations. PG Wodehouse has been very therapeutic. Also his books improve your vocabulary and raise your awareness of language usage.
So, now that my awareness of language usage is raised, I need to get something off my chest before embarking on the next phase of writing career — an irritating issue that has been simmering under my skin since I first entered the software development world as a technical writer fifteen years ago. The issue is this: the widespread use of the word “populate” to describe the practice of entering data into a software interface, as in “Now we need to populate the fields” — meaning we need to type or import information such as names, addresses, and numbers into a form on the computer screen. Sometimes this word even appears in a technical manual. Never in my technical manuals, mind you, but in some. And no one ever bats an eye at this outrage!
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the word populate as a verb comes from Medieval Latin and means “inhabit, to people.” The word populus was used in the Roman Empire and meant “a people, tribe, or nation” and referred to the multitude of citizens in classes lower than the Roman Senate. So, it seems, somewhere along the line some computer geek decided to take a 2000-year old word that specifically refers to human beings and appropriate it willy-nilly to mean bits of data on a computer screen. Unless you mean you are relocating people into your computer screen, I find this to be an insensitive insult to human language. As if computers have not already dehumanized us enough. At least leave words that mean human beings out of it and stop turning people into numbers.
But I do not want to register a complaint without offering a solution. I don’t want to leave my colleagues in the computer industry hanging. I understand they desperately need a one-word verb to replace the grossly inaccurate populate. To that end I have done some hard thinking on the matter: let’s see….you want a word that means putting something into a previously empty space. What you are putting into the empty space is a bit of data. Transitive verbs such as load or insert or type demand to be combined with a direct object; also they don’t cover both manual and automated input. Hmmm.
I propose datize. As far as I can tell this word does not so far exist, but words are coined every day, especially when dealing with an industry that did not exist a century ago. Datize it is both shorter and more accurate than populate. I think it could catch on. Also it has the advantage of not cannibalizing the soul of humanity.
P.S.: Recently I attended a certain training session in which I heard the shocking statement “Leadership is a verb.” No. Sorry. Leadership is a noun, has always been a noun, and will always be a noun. Is nothing sacred?
I have been having a little difficulty getting back to my book discussions after the sudden death of my son five weeks ago. I have continued reading, probably more and faster than before, but my focus has changed dramatically. I began the summer with a mission to read and study as many books of philosophy as I could, especially political philosophy. I will probably get back to The Wealth of Nations one of these days, but at the moment I do not much care about political philosophy.
My current thought on political philosophy boils down to this: The political and financial power systems of this world are so riddled with corruption that they are cracking at the seams and will soon collapse under the pressure of their own disease. Maybe the systems will hold together for another century or so. Maybe not that long. For the sake of all the innocents and semi-innocents who will suffer when the world system finally crumbles, I hope it holds out for as long as possible. I see the Hillary Clinton campaign as a metaphor for the world system: very sick but desperately being propped up by all the power and money the world can supply. If you are of another political opinion, I don’t mean to offend. You are welcome to think of a metaphor for the world system using the Donald Trump campaign. The disease in the system goes far beyond a couple of piddly American political parties but they are both displaying some serious symptoms.
My focus is now on that other world, the one where my son is not dead, the eternal reality where I and the rest of us will also be long before the century has passed. So the books I am reading are books that focus on that world. I want to read about the things that will survive: love, peace, service to others, sources of real joy, and the sustainer of all that is true, God. I have been writing a lot on my blog about Jesse, his life and the loss of his life on earth and it’s impact: the aftermath, the memories, and sources of comfort.
Once I begin writing about books again – and I feel like it will be soon – I will write about The Princess and Curdie and other writings of George MacDonald, as well as some of the many other books that have been giving me spiritual support. Books have always been a source of spiritual support for me, but now more than ever.
There is something very sad I need to tell you before I continue with my book reviews and discussions. My last post (on Hobbes’ Leviathan) was published August 8th. That Monday morning I just had to do some finishing touches on the post before clicking Publish. A little while later my life as I knew it came to a sudden and devastating halt. I found out that my 23-year old son Jesse had died in his sleep.
My worst nightmare has happened and I am still in deepest grief and shock. I expect I will be for a long time. If you have ever heard that grief comes in waves I can confirm it is true, in my case seismic waves with the power to knock me to the ground. The foundation of my life has crumbled and the shape of my life is shifting. I have no idea what it will look like a few months from now. I only know it will never be the same as before.
The day after it happened, a few hours after meeting with the funeral director, I wrote my son’s obituary. I couldn’t bear the thought of a stranger writing it. After that I thought I would never write anything again. But within a few days I was writing. I guess as long as a writer breaths, a writer writes. This is a book blog and will remain so. But whatever I write and whatever I do, I expect it will be affected by the loss of my son. My perspective on the way I see life and its purpose has already shifted and I think this is only the beginning. I knew I would need to write a lot about Jesse so I started another site to journal about him and the experience of going through his death and it’s aftermath. In case you want to follow along with that, you can find the site here.
On this blog I will continue writing about my favorite thing: books. I just couldn’t jump back into the routine without acknowledging and being honest about the death of my son. The next book I will be writing about is a 19th-century children’s book called The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald. I began the book before Jesse died and finished it after.
I chose The Princess and Curdie because I had recently felt a sudden strong urge to read George MacDonald, which is strange on several levels. First because MacDonald’s writings introduced me into a new deeper understanding of the teachings of Christ…..almost as if I was being prepared for something. Why did I suddenly feel the urgency to read the stories and sermons of George MacDonald this summer? Second, as I began The Princess and Curdie I thought a lot about my son as a small child – how he used to love an animated version of MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. I bought him the video because I had so loved that book as a child. My reading life has always been a spiritual journey for me and this confirms my belief that God and his angels have always been guiding me on my reading path.
Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil was one of my more difficult reading experiences, but well worth the effort. The text is not hard to understand; although dense, Hobbes’ writing is smooth as silk and interlaced with a subtle dry wit. I found the 17th century English to be an unexpected delight. For me the drollness of it is perfect for understated humor.
The difficult part is that I am highly resistant to the case Hobbes is making: the case for a highly authoritarian form of government, preferably a hereditary monarchy. I have always hated the idea of authoritarian government let alone monarchy and after reading Leviathan I still don’t care for it. However I must admit I can see where Hobbes is coming from. This book demonstrated to me that, with intelligence, reasoning skills, and a dash of dry humor, you can make a strong case for pretty much anything.
Leviathan is considered by scholars to be the foundational work of modern political theory. Published in 1651, it was innovative, original, and it laid groundwork for the social science of politics and the framing of concepts such as “social contract”. Hobbes employs persuasive reason to explore the source and limits of state authority. It breaks down barriers of thought, punctures assumptions, and most of all dares to challenge the authority of the church. Yes, the authority of the church was challenged before Hobbes – e.g. Henry VIII, Martin Luther, and most, relevantly, Oliver Cromwell. But Hobbes goes further and explains point by point why the church does not have authority at all in this world and how it has misinterpreted scripture to its own advantage.
Hobbes was apparently a peace-loving soul and a gifted scholar. He was born in 1588 I’m Malmesbury, right about the time England was having the conflict with the Spanish Armada. There is a story is that he was born prematurely because his mother (whose name nobody knows) took fright when she heard about the approaching Armada. When he was very young, his clergyman father was disgraced by a fight with another vicar and was forced to leave the family. Thomas and his brother and sister ended up being raised by an unmarried uncle.
Not much more is known about his childhood except that he received an excellent education and showed early signed of being a promising scholar. His first post-college jog was as a tutor for the son of a wealthy family named Cavindish. This family became his sponsor and protector throughout his life – and as his life included some violent political times, that protection may have preserved his life. He worked as a tutor off and on throughout his long life, even for a short time tutoring the Prince of Wales, a gig that seems to have benefitted him in his old age when the Prince of Wales became King Charles II. In middle age he lived through the English Civil War in which Charles I was dethroned by the Oliver Cromwell party. Hobbes heard about the king’s beheading from an eye witness and was much upset by that event as well as the civil unrest and crazed violence of the period.
I have read differing accounts of how the English Civil War may or may not have inspired Hobbes to write Leviathan. From what I can discern he had already thought out much of his political theory years before the war broke out, writing several treatises on aspects of it, but perhaps the war, the loss of a good friend in the violence, and the beheading of the king intensified his efforts to get the book into print. The book, published in 1651, caused quite an uproar and offended pretty much all parties. That in itself is an indicator of a must-read!
You’d think at least the Royalists would love the book since it is an unapologetic defense of a powerful monarchy. But no. Apparently some of them wanted to kill the author. Some of the Royalists were Catholic and the book absolutely skewers the Catholic Church. Others were Anglican and the book is not flattering to them either. Also, despite his apparent support for monarchy, in an underhanded way Hobbes makes the point that the sovereign reigns only at the consent of the people and has certain obligations under the social contract. This was a big departure from the idea that the king’s authority comes straight from God – an idea known at the divine right of kings.
The idea of a social contract between the sovereign and the subjects had been around long before Hobbes, but he redefined it and presented a radical new theory about how it works in mechanistic terms and why it is necessary to the wellbeing of humanity. Hobbes calls the Government or state led by a sovereign a leviathan, a concept he got from the Book of Job, Chapter 41. He calls the leviathan state “an artificial man” with an artificial body, the sovereign being the head, that serves to protect humans from a much more horrible alternative: living in the state of nature. In explaining his idea of the state of nature, Hobbes writes the passage he is most famous for:
In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
You just can’t write a review of Leviathan without quoting that. Hobbes goes on for quite some time in this section explaining how in a state of nature humans live in a constant state of war or fear of war. Nothing is illegal and therefore life is a big free-for-all of taking and killing to benefit yourself and your tribe. He does not blame mankind for this. We can’t help what we are, but the sooner we face the fact that humans are incapable of living in happy peace without a strong government, the sooner we will be able to live happily within the necessities of the artificial world created by civil government.
The book has a scientific materialistic secular tone that continues to offend today. Hobbes says he cannot imagine anything really existing without a body or an objective existence. Dreams and ghosts are result of imagination deriving from a physical origin working on the internal parts of the brain. They have no reality. And yet the Catholic Church has found many ways to use supposed spiritual beings to control people and gain money. I am no materialist, but you cannot deny history. Hobbes make much of Jesus’ words “My kingdom is not of this world.”
In fact, half the book makes his case from biblical scriptures. Which is kind of funny, because scholars say Hobbes was either an atheist, an agnostic, or a deist. From my reading of Leviathan my guess is deist. I suppose the Bible had such a hold on the people of the time, that he wants to show that even the Bible supports his case. As a scholar he knows his Bible deeply and thoroughly, quoting extensively from both the Old and New Testaments. It’s a good thing I have read Tolstoy and Walter Wink, who show how the Bible supports civil disobedience and anarchy. Otherwise I might have fallen for Hobbe’s arguments. (Read widely folks. I am middle aged and my horizons are still widening with every book I read, and I know I have far to go before I can form any definite conclusion. I am beginning to think that such conclusion will have to wait until I have spent a couple thousand years in the great library in the sky.)
Leviathan is divided into three parts called Of Man, Of Commonwealth, and Of Christian Commonwealth. Part Three, the longest, is where Hobbes takes on the Catholic Church and religion in general, making full use of the Bible to make his case. He spends a lot of time explaining why the Pope and a state sovereign cannot share power. A leviathan cannot have two heads. But what if the king commands you to to do something against your conscience or the laws of your religion such as worship himself as as a god? Then, says Hobbes, worship the king as a god:
To pray to a King for such things as hee is able to doe for us, though we prostrate our selves before him, is but Civill Worship; because we acknowledge no other power in him, but humane; But voluntarily to pray unto him for fair weather, or for anything which God onely can do for us, is Divine Worship, and Idolotry. On the other side, if a King compel a man to it by the terrour of Death, or other great corporal punishment, it is not Idolatry; For Worship which the Soveraign commandeth bee done unto himself by the terrour of his Laws, is not a sign that he that obey etch him inwardly honour him as God, but that he is desirous to save himself from death, or from a miserable life.
The positive side of Hobbes is that he is all about the preservation of life. The goal of his civil arrangement is that as many people as possible might live a good long reasonably content life — avoid an early death after a nasty brutish life. He thinks living in and not rebelling against a strong state is the best way to make this happen.
There are exceptions – a very few reasons why someone might want to disobey their sovereign. For example:
If….a Pastor lawfully called to teach and direct others or any other, of whose knowledge there is great opinion, do externall honor to an Idol for fear; unless he make his feare, and unwillingnesse to it, as evident as the worship, he Scandalizeth his Brother by seeming to approve Idolatry.
So …. a religious leader might consider risking martyrdom by engaging in a little civil disobedience. But Hobbes goes on to say that for the average joe there is absolutely no good reason to risk bodily harm over a symbolic ceremony. I especially love the language in this book. You’ll notice there is no consistency in spelling, capitalization, or punctuation. And yet the style lends itself so well to subtle humor and sarcasm. Several times I found myself laughing aloud at words like “Scandalizeth.” It probably seems funnier to me than it did to Hobbes, although there is plenty of deliberate wit throughout the book.
NOTE: Along with reading I listened to James Adam’s beautiful narration of Leviathan edition recorded by Blackstone Audio. I find with longer difficult books audio is huge help but you also need the text.
I am still working my way through Leviathan and still have a stack if philosophy books to read during my Summer of Philosophy. In the meantime I will share a review I originally wrote a couple years ago. If there is any novel that has had a profound influence on my personal philosophy, it is this one….
Resurrection fits into the literary category of “philosophic novel” along with the novels of George Orwell, Ayn Rand, Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and C.S. Lewis. Some would categorize Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a philosophical novel. I have a special fondness for a philosophic novel. I love philosophy because it helps me make sense of this confusing world, so I will, on occasion, make the effort to read a philosophy book. But straight philosophy books are too often about as exciting as dryer lint. So if I can read a novel that makes philosophy come alive within the context of a story and achieve a better grasp of it in an entertaining way, why not?
Although Resurrection is philosophical to the bone, it is also strong in plot and its characters are emotionally complex and beautifully portrayed. The story centers on the spiritual awakening of one Prince Dmitri Ivanovitch Nekhludoff, a rich young nobleman. Nekhludoff slowly comes to the same conclusions about society and truth that Tolstoy believed, but the character is not the author. Tolstoy was 50 years old when he came to the realizations that changed the course of his life. Resurrection begins with a freakish coincidence that triggers a spiritual awakening for Nekhludoff, who is about 30. He shows up at court for jury duty one day, only to find out that the defendant is the girl he impregnated and abandoned ten years ago when she was a maid in the home of his two aunts.
When he sees Katerina Maslova, now a prostitute, on trial for poisoning one of her clients, Nekhludoff is driven to confront his past and come to terms with the fact that his actions toward this girl set her on the path that led her to the current state of affairs. Although most of the jury members as well as the judge believe that Maslova has been framed for the crime and is in fact innocent, she is convicted due to a technicality in the wording of the verdict and sentenced to four years hard labor in Siberia.
Nekhludoff, who is considering marriage to the daughter of a wealthy family, knows he could walk away and not look back, but he feels compelled to do whatever is in his power to help Maslova. After fighting through a maze of bureaucracy he is able to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the prisoner. However the reunion does go quite as he imagined. Maslova is no longer the sweet vibrant girl he knew. Her life has made her hard and cynical and she does not wish to be reminded by his presence of either the innocent girl she once was or the intense pain she experienced when he left her. However, she does ask Nekhludoff to see if he can help some of her fellow prisoners.
This sets him on a journey of discovery about the Russian prison system with its corruption, injustices, maddening inconsistencies, miserable victims, and callous beneficiaries – the government officials and lawyers who profit from its legal churnings. These discoveries, mixed with a painful examination of his own life, slowly unfold into horrifying vision of the world humans have created. He begins to see that a favored few live in callous luxury on the suffering backs of millions.
Resurrection, with it cast of thousands, is sweeping in scope and yet as intimate as one man’s breaking heart and troubled mind. Although the novel is about the evils of a predatory system and its victims, it avoids the simplistic dichotomy of evil villains versus innocent victims. To be sure, there are evil villains as well as innocent victims, but these are only the two ends of fully realized spectrum of morality. Nearly all the characters are presented with some sympathy as real human beings doing what they must to live and feed their families within the world as they find it.
Most people, rich, poor, or in between, do whatever is easiest, least risky, and most beneficial for themselves. We meet sympathetic prison wardens, bureaucrats willing to bend the rules for money, favors, or out of sheer good will, brutal prison guards who later regret their actions, and men with lofty morals slowly corrupted by the demands of their profession. Among the prisoners there are the purest of saints and the vilest of sinners and every type of in between.
Tolstoy was internationally famous when this book was published. It was eagerly anticipated, quickly translated into several languages, and was an instant international bestseller. However, it seems that enthusiasm soon waned. Resurrection is now the least known of his three long novels. It is not hard to see why. The novel is challenging – about as challenging as the philosophy presented in Matthew 5, the sermon on the mount. It challenges the very foundations on which our civilization is built. If you are willing to be open to that prospect, you will love this book. I get the idea that some people are a bit put off by it. In any case, the challenge of this book is not in how it is written – it is written with clarity, beauty, and depth – but in what is says. Even I was a quite shaken up by the time I got to the end.
Lately my reading life has been taking me on trips in several dramatically different directions. In the reading life multiple directions is not a bad thing. In college you take five or six different classes, all of which have required reading; so you can be reading a work of modern literature such as D.W. Lawrence, a psychology text, a book on news editing, a book on statistics and analysis, a Shakespeare play, and piles literary criticism. In college that kind of reading load seems normal even if you are also working two jobs because you know all these seemingly unrelated books will eventually work together in the larger scheme that comprises your education.
As someone who sees my entire life as an education, I know that every book I read will eventually find its place in the pattern of my life. How that pattern will finally come out I will not know until the last book falls to the floor with my last breath. Shortly after that significant event I will see clearly how every experience and every decision I made, whether in my career, in my personal relationships, or in the book store, fits the pattern. I hope the result is pleasing to my creator and without too many loose ends.
But let us get back to the present where I belong. Here is the current crazy collection of books I am reading now – or have finished in the past couple of weeks or so. First of course, I am reading various works of philosophy. I recently completed my initial journey into the world of Kierkegaard with The Lily of the Field and the Bird of Air. Concurrently with reading Kierkegaard, I have been working my way through Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes.
It is going to take me several posts to process Leviathan. I’ll probably do one post just on how reading a book published in 1649 can really help you deal with the craziness of the current world. Leviathan is about human nature and how human nature works in politics and government. To compare what Hobbes has to say with U.S. Power politics in 2016 can be enlightening and amusing – in a dark sort of way.
Reading about Writing
In addition to philosophy I have been reading a bunch of instructional books on writing fiction. I have written lots and lots of non-fiction but very little fiction. Since I have decided I want to it and have a great idea for a novel, I need to educate myself on the nuts and bolts. Fiction is a very specialized skill set and very few of us happen on to these skills naturally. I certainly do not.
So I have have chosen a group of great writing instructors and am reading their books. I have finished Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, a great one, and am well into Voice by James Scott Bell and Sizzling Story Outlines by H.R. D’Costa. Also I recently read The Art of X-Ray Reading by Peter Roy Clark, another fantastic writing instructor. X-Ray Reading is about reading with a view to learning writing technique from the masters – what to look for to learn how great authors achieved the powerful effects they did.
All of these instructors have successfully published fiction that people have actually paid money to read. Since that is more that I have achieved I thought it might be worthwhile to find out what kind of books they have written. My reading life has focused primarily on classics and “literary” fiction, but they tell me popular fiction is where the money is, and I am thinking that money might be not be a bad idea. I want to live in the mountains some day where there are not many employers, so I need to find a way to make a living.
So with that in mind I found several novels by James Scott Bell on Hoopla. So far I have read two of them: Sins of the Father, about a mass shooting that is not what it appears to be, and Deadlock, about a Supreme Court justice who experiences a mid-career religious conversion. Both are entertaining stories, well written, and quick to read — a lovely break from Hobbes and Kierkegaard — and they also deepened my understanding of the fiction trade. I will want to read more by Bell and will also be looking for fiction written by my other writing instructors.”
Spiritual Book Club
And then there is my book club, a group of six women who read and discuss books specifically on spiritual and religious issues. Being in this book club has been a wonderfully enriching experience for me. The group actually emerged from a broken church experience, an ugly conflict within the congregation that caused these ladies to question a lot of things about both church life and personal faith.
The book club had been meeting for a while when they invited me to join them. I was hesitant because I don’t really like having a weekly thing to go to after work when I’m trying to build a writing career, but I went ahead and joined anyway and I’m glad I did. We have had some great discussions that have helped me clarify some things but we have also opened up a few truckloads of worms.
Our current book is Take this Bread by Sara Miles. Sara Miles was a war journalist during the conflicts of the 1980s in Central America. She was also a secularist and is a lesbian. One day she experienced a sudden conversion upon accepting communion at an unusual Episcopal church in San Francisco. This led her to take the Christian instruction to feed the hungry seriously and to become the founder a system of food pantries.
Sara’s food pantries are unusual in that they do not ask anyone to fill out paperwork to “prove their worthiness” or fulfill any poverty requirements. All are welcome to the table, the food is free, and no questions are asked. She writes about how this has worked out – the obstacles, the problems, the thrilling successes of feeding the hungry mobs who show up. The book gets into the whole food distribution system – such as the incredible waste that makes the food pantries feasible. Really interesting. Other books we have read include Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber, A Confession by Leo Tolstoy (my pick), Jesus and Nonviolence by Walter Wink and many others.
I am not sure exactly why I suddenly became enamored by Damon Runyon. I think it was a combination of things converging one late night: watching a few episodes of Boardwalk Empire, getting a threatening letter from the public/private toll-collecting racket in my area (they want $160 for passing through the tunnel five times or they’ll see to it I can’t renew my car registration….), memories of a long-ago summer when I was in a production of the musical Guys and Dolls.
If you have not yet read Damon Runyon you have a true delight waiting for you. Runyon was a newspaper guy who wrote hilarious stories about New York gangsters in the 1920s and ’30s. The best thing about his stories is the unique dialect. Will write more about Damon Runyon in a future post. Currently I am reading a collection called More Than Somewhat and am also listening to some old Damon Runyon radio shows, I think from the 1940s.
Coming Soon: Review of newly published book
Another new direction is about to open up in my reading life. Occasionally authors will contact me to review their book and I do want to support other writers. So I will soon be reviewing Sandlands by the British writer Rosy Thornton. It’s a collection of related short stories that take place in a village in coastal Suffolk. Suffolk England that is. I live in Suffolk, Virginia. When Rosy contacted me I felt like it was a connection not to be passed up. When it comes to book choices I am a big believer in signs. Besides some day, hopefully in the near future, I am going to need bloggers to review my book.
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How about you? Are you a multi-tasker when it comes to reading or do you prefer to focus on one book or one direction?
As I embark on my latest philosophy excursion, I am gathering some of the pieces I have written in the past. I am casting my philosophy net wide; I will include any book that has bearing on how humans should live, what is true, and/or the meaning of life. I read The Prince about a year ago and posted the following review on my previous blog…..
All my adult life I have been running across this term “Machiavellian” and somehow, through context and osmosis, I understood that the term refers to the idea that the ends justify the means. A week or so ago my reading path led me down a dark side path right into to clutches of Machiavelli and I realized I could no longer avoid reading the source of that shady reference: The Prince.
Here’s how it happened. I had finished this philosophical novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and that got me interested in the essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” by Isaiah Berlin. But when I looked at Isaiah Berlin’s collection of essays The Proper Study of Mankind I saw that one of his essays is about Machiavelli so I decided it would be better to read The Prince first. The time had come to find out what this Niccolò Machiavelli really said that has caused so much literary and political uproar these past five centuries. He wrote The Prince in 1513 and distributed some written copies but it wasn’t officially printed until 1532.
Was Machiavelli really a literal or literary devil, as some have called him, or has he been misrepresented? My rapid research indicates that he has had his supporters and apologists over the years, but few deny that he presents the human race in a cynical light. After reading The Prince I find that the book fully deserves its reputation, but I wondered if it were not some sort of satire, a sort of 16th version of The Onion. But I think not. It is too true to the facts. The book deals with the true state of human affairs – just on a level we usually do not usually acknowledge openly.
Although Machiavelli is often categorized as a philosopher, I suspect that is not the perspective he was going for. He is not trying to figure out the meaning of life or understand the nature of truth. Within the scope of his subject matter, he already knows the meaning life (acquiring and keeping power) and the book simply describes what a prince (or head of state) needs do if he wants to be successful and avoid losing his state. It is a straightforward operating manual that uses examples from current events (circa early 1500s) as well as from history, particularly that of the Roman Empire, but also draws from the Old Testament.
The Prince seems to me a very practical book that deals with the world as it is rather than with ideals or the way it should be. It’s just that in the arena of acquiring and keeping state power, the plain truth is often brutal. In many ways throughout the book, Machiavelli makes the point that “…it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.”
Whatever goes on behind the scenes, the prince must maintain a public image that complies with the current standards of morality and virtue, cultivating a reputation as an upstanding man of both courage and mercy: “A prince is highly esteemed who conveys this impression of himself and he who is highly esteemed is not easily conspired against; for, provided it is well known that he is an excellent man and revered by his people, he can only be attacked with difficulty.”
Nowhere in the book does Machiavelli suggest that any prince ought to be virtuous for the sake of true morality, God, or decency. Goodness, or at least the appearance of goodness, is a useful and necessary tool for maintaining one’s power. The only thing that is good in itself is power. Power is the goal and therefore a prince’s real virtue, wisdom, and strength lie wholly in his ability to do whatever it takes to sustain it.
However no prince can afford to have the people hate him. The hatred of the people will be his downfall because any enemy can come along and leverage the power of that hatred against him. And yet, as a wise prince, you don’t want the people to exactly love you either – you just want them to not hate you. Machiavelli tells you why this is so and how to obtain this balanced relationship with your subjects:
“…for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails. Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women.”
Of course behind the strong yet virtuous façade, the prince must be willing, able, and ready to do whatever is necessary to maintain his power. This includes killing his enemies, anyone who threatens to become an enemy, anyone who might give courage to an enemy, anyone who undermines him with the people, and most importantly, anyone liable to become more powerful than the prince himself.
There are many ways to control or destroy one’s enemies and just as many ways to secure the loyalty of one’s friends. A successful price is always on the lookout for potential threats, and even in peace, is always securing the foundations of his political and military strength. Affection and love are good as far as they go but a prudent prince will want to take out insurance policies on his friends by making sure they stand to lose something important, such as life or property, should he experience loss of power.
Some of the topics covered in this amazing little treatise include:
- The various paths to becoming a prince and the risks and benefits of each: inheritance, conquering a principality by your own arms and ability, good fortune (you benefit from the arms of others), wickedness (you kill the prince and usurp the kingdom), civil means through the favor of the people or the nobles, or ecclesiastical appointment.
- Managing your soldiers and the dangers of using mercenaries
- The utmost importance of studying war.
- The pros and cons of liberality (generosity) toward for friends and subjects and meanness (frugality).
- The proper balance of cruelty and clemency.
- To what extent do you keep promises and when deceit becomes necessary or prudent.
- Why you should arm the people.
- How to gain renown (using King Ferdinand of Spain as an example: the one married to Queen Isabella who gave Christopher Columbus the ships in 1492.
- How to choose secretaries and assistants (how to know who to trust).
- What to do about flatterers.
- Why princes lose their states.
- How to prep for bad fortune.
The Prince is an enlightening little book that is dense in ideas, advice, names of historical figures, and case histories. I found the ideas easy to follow but the names – lots of Italian names of now obscure people – and the complex military events were a bit overwhelming. One thing the book showed me is that the politics and constant power struggles of the Italian principalities at that time were complex and extremely brutal.
Now I have known for a long time that the standards of this world and the way of higher, or eternal, truth are two entirely different things. That is part of the point of Christ’s crucifixion story. He became a threat to the powers of this world. But I am always fascinated to learn more about the ways of the world we live in and I found The Prince be quite educational. The equally educational TV series “House of Cards” would fit well as an appendix: a modern update of sorts. As would pretty much any edition of the daily political US and world news.
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NOTE: I read the edition of The Prince published by Dover Publications for Kindle and translated by W.K. Marriott.
After several months of lavishly gorging myself on Victorian fiction, I am in the process of changing my reading focus for a while to something entirely different: philosophy. I think it will be just as fun. I have dreams of writing my own philosophy one of these days, but first I need to study up. Some philosophers in the immediate pipeline include Thomas More, Immanuel Kant, Kierkegaard, David Hume, and a 20th century philosopher named Susanne Langer. I know I am all over the map but I have my own logic here. I will eventually add more to the philosophy list, including some classical thinkers. Suggestions are welcome. I am primarily interested in what the greatest thinkers have to say about the source and reason for human existence. Hope that’s not too narrow an area for anyone.
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I am currently reading a sweet little book called The Lily Of The Field And The Bird of the Air by Søren Keirkegaard (translated and with an introduction by Bruce H. Kirmmse). I’ve been longing to get to Kierkegaard for a long time and the other day checked at Barnes & Noble to see it they had a copy of Either/Or. Kierkegaard’s works, although published in the first half of the 19th century, are for some reason not in the public domain. They are not any less expensive on Kindle so I figured I might as well buy the real book at a real book store.
B & N didn’t have Either/Or but they had this one. The Lily Of The Field And The Bird of the Air is sort of a contemplative commentary on Matthew 6:24-34, a portion of the Sermon on the Mount. So far it’s about the wisdom that silence can lead to, a listening kind of silence that you can learn from birds and flowers. Most of my lessons of this sort come from dogs, but I’ll get to that shortly.
Kierkegaard says that we must first seek the kingdom of God and the way to seek it is through prayer, not babbling prayer but the kind of prayer in which you realize you are in the presence of God and fall silent at the realization because there is simply no other way to respond to the presence of God. For several years of my life I used to repeat that verse to myself all the time: “Seek first the kingdom of God” – and in my scattershot disorganized way I tried to do that. But like the disciple Thomas I did not know the way.
In response to the disciple’s question, Jesus said he is the Way, so I tried to follow him, but never did it very well. I needed to give more to the poor, I needed to have more love and less judgment in my heart, I needed to be less self-indulgent and give in less to desires for instant gratification. I fall short in so many ways it’s surprising I can get up off the floor and keep living every day. But I do keep living. Based solely on his promises, his mercy, and my own hope, I believe I can keep living today and will in fact live forever. I’m keenly aware that I probably do not deserve to live forever, but deserve it or not, I am pretty sure I will.
There is a lot of fun to be had in doing in doing the impossible and getting away with what you don’t deserve. I have a theory that existence itself is as near to impossible as it is possible to be and still happen. Existence is wrought in the point of friction between “is” and “is not”, yes and no. Existence defies the powerful suck of the abyss and chooses to be. All of us have all cleared that formidable hurdle. We have gotten a seat on the plane with the rarest tickets. We have won the ultimate lottery. And yet we question, some of us, why we exist at all and agonize all day over the meaning of it all and whether we have a purpose. Some people actually kill themselves over things like losing a job. A job. After all that stupendous luck in becoming an existing being.
Look at a dog. No one really cares about the existence or non-existence of a single puppy unless: a) you have formed a personal emotional attachment to the mutt or b) the dog has enabled you to develop an interest in himself by becoming a celebrity. There is an ongoing saga in a city near where I live about the trials and tribulations of a certain labradoodle who is shaved to looked like a lion. The local newspaper has run several stories on his brushes with the law. People love reading about the dog, whose name is Charles the Monarch. He sells papers. But if you see a dog dead on the road you may feel a pang, be sorry for the dog’s suffering and and experience a split second of empathy for the grief and loss of the people who owned (regrettable word) the dog. In two minutes you will have forgotten all about it.
I love that most dogs in our culture are useless in a utilitarian sense. Some dogs are used for hunting or service to the disabled or police work, but the vast majority are “merely” pets. They number in enough millions to support PetSmart, Petco, Pet Mountain, Petstore.com, and numerous other retailers as well as multitudes of grooming and boarding services, veterinarians, and even a few periodicals. And yet they do nothing but live in your house and keep you company.
Obviously dogs fill some important human needs. They can be social agents: getting you outdoors and giving you something easy to talk to people about. They can be status enhancers for those to like to acquire status-enhancing breeds. They can be atmosphere fresheners and stress reducers. You have trouble at work? Someone is drunk again? Your teenager has issues? You have anxiety about where the world is headed? Well there is Cocoa or Fluffy or Max, lying placidly on the rug, utterly unconcerned. Or he is wagging his tale and licking your face, caring about nothing but his doggy comforts and your happiness. The atmosphere becomes balanced, the stress is reduced, perspective is restored. You can laugh again.
I seem to have gotten off point, thinking about a dog’s purpose from my human point of view and all. My point is that the dog himself does not care one iota whether he has a purpose or not. To the dog, his existence is his purpose and he has already fulfilled it. He is full to the jowls with a specific kind of doggy essence. Dogs are just one reason I have to doubt the “we are all one thing” kind of philosophies that say forms are illusions and we are all destined to be re-absorbed into the eternal oneness. I believe we must all come from one source, but I am not so sure that once a form is created it ever gets absorbed back into the oneness. Sure, the material body turns to dust, but what of the idea, the essence, that something that makes your dog so individually doggy? I am not convinced that any being once created can be absorbed back into the source, any more than a word spoken can ever be unspoken.
God must love forms; and that which is loved by God cannot be erased. Love is the engine of creation. If forms and ideas could go away as if they had never been, then it would mean love, the source of all things, could go away. Because I exist, am the result of the nearly impossible miracle, I must believe that love exists and that which created me will always exist. Besides God/the source created what we call time but does not live as part of of time. If once God exists at all God always exists in an eternal present. The negation of love would be the negation of thought and all that is. We who exist cannot conceive of such an occurrence without annihilation. If this doesn’t make sense bear with me. I am still working it all out.
I vaguely remember reading My Ántonia back in high school AP English but in the decades between then and now, which included getting a degree in English + 21 hours of graduate studies, I did not read anything else by Willa Cather. Until reading O Pioneers! last week. How could such a thing happen? Isn’t that like living in Washington DC and never visiting the Smithsonian? I guess it’s just mathematics: so many books + so little time + busy life = not getting around to Willa Cather (and too many other great authors to count).
Oh well. I will focus on the wonders of the books I have read and not on the mountains of books I have not. A climber of Mount Literature faces a task far more daunting than a climber of Mount Everest – but certainly a far more pleasant one. What climber of Everest gets to wrap of in a warm blanket drinking hot coffee while climbing?
But if we are to get around to talking about O Pioneers! we must leave all mountains behind and descend onto the stark plains of Nebraska. This novel, the first in Cather’s Great Plains trilogy, is about the hardy people who set out to farm the American plains in the 19th century – that is, the first settlers of European ancestry. Native Americans do not appear in O Pioneers! but I understand they play a role in the next in the series, The Song of the Lark.
My first reaction to this book was a feeling of cleansing, as if I were showering off all the layers of technology and infrastructure that have accumulated since the late 1890s: highways, strip malls, cell phones, televisions, Wal-marts, income tax forms, junk food, top forty songs, Hollywood, and super models. It felt so refreshing to transport my mind to a place where none of these things exist, a place where people’s minds are free of most of what occupies our minds in this era. If the mind is stripped of all this 21st century clutter, what can be left to fill it up? In the Nebraska of this novel it turns out there is more than enough to occupy the minds of the characters: things such as eating, weather, harvests, family conflicts, hopes and dreams, and the rarest human necessities, love and friendship.
Willa Cather was born in Virginia and moved to Nebraska when she was nine years old where Her father tried farming for 18 months, and then moved his family to the town of Red Cloud and opened a real estate business. The vast flatness and stark beauty of the land as well the character of the people, mostly recent European immigrants, made a huge impression on young Willa.
The story is told in a plain-spoken third person narration, suitable to the strong simple characters and the hard realities of their lives. The story focuses on the Bergsons, a family of Swedish-American settlers.The main character, Alexandra Bergson, is able to succeed where many people fail due to a combination of intelligence, perseverence, and quality of strength that is hard to describe, but which Cather captures beautifully. I liked that through her difficulties Alexandra never becomes hard or unkind, but remains a cheerful kind person, always seeking the best for everyone but strong enough to avoid letting people take advantage of her.
Alexandra’s extraordinary character contrasts with that of her brothers Lou and Oscar, both of whom have their good points and good intentions, but who simply do not possess the necessary traits to succeed in the challenging new land, at least without the good sense and business acumen of their sister. When story begins, Alexandra is about 20 and has come to town to pick up some supplies. She has brought along her five-year-old brother Emil and runs into her best friend Carl Linstrum, a skinny teenager who lives on a neighboring farm. We also a meet charming little girl in the general store named Marie, a Bohemian child dressed in “Kate Greenway” style. Marie later plays a major role in the plot.
Carl accompanies them part of the way home and Alexandra tells him how worried she is about the future. Her father is dying. Later that night her father tells her brother Lou and Oscar, 19 and 17, that Alexandra is to be in charge if the business-end of the farm and is no longer to work in fields.
I loved the way the novel deals with the core basics of life – working the land, erecting houses on the bare land, and the basic needs even among the strongest for love and friendship. How many families do we know in which one person plays the part of the “strong one” or the anchor so that everyone else can be weak, neurotic, adventurous, and foolish. Alexandra is the poster child for that strong family member; for the next 20 years she puts her needs on hold for the sake of family and farm in loyalty to her beloved father. But she has her limits and life eventually brings her to edge of her emotional endurance.
When she faces the worst does she fall apart, triumph, or a little of both? This is not a saccharine story. There is both great joy and crushing heartbreak, just like real life. There are elements of naturalism and elements of the Victorian omniscient narrator, but Willa Cather’s voice is her own. The Great Plains trilogy was very popular but later Cather faced a lot of unkind criticism for not get on board with the modernist movement of the 1920s and ’30s. I’m glad she didn’t. My writing/life lesson from this novel is stick faithfully to your own voice and style, even if it does not happen to be trendy.
Last post was a stupid experimental thing about doodling while reading Chomsky, so I thought I’d follow up with a more conventional post now that I’m nearly finished with the audio book. I can’t guarantee this one is much more intelligent, but at least it doesn’t involve doodling. After this I promise I will get back to the serious business of discussing Victorian novels.
And by the way, Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Sorry I don’t have a more St. P’s oriented post. The closest thing I have to something Irish is a post on Phineas Finn Redux by Anthony Trollope.
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I am driving to work so early that the sun will not rise for another two hours, listening to an audio book called Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, a collection of talks and discussions by Noam Chomsky the famous MIT professor of linguistics. I have never read anything by Chomsky before except one article – an interview by David Barsamian in the June 2014 issue of The Sun called Noam Chomsky: On How the U.S. Breeds Inequality at Home and Instability Abroad. The article interested me enough to seek out a Chomsky audio book. I read for one purpose: to further my understanding of truth. I do not read to relax – reading always stimulates me. If a book relaxes me I fall asleep. Nor do I usually read to entertain myself, although entertainment is almost always a fringe benefit.
I am 97 percent done with the audio book, which is like 22.5 hours long, and I must say it is causing me to see the world differently. The world Chomsky describes is scary and getting scarier all the time. These talks occurred in the late 1980s through around 1999, so it is interesting to hear his perspective on events and decisions that immediately preceded the world we are living in now. As Chomsky describes it seems there is a web of power spreading like an interconnected cloud of darkness over the political globe made up of an insulated class of rich and powerful people getting fatter and fatter while 99 percent of world’s population slowly declines into more or less hopeless poverty. The vast majority of people outside the web of power are considered to be cannon fodder or “consumers” or simply disposable, as in the exploding U.S. prison population. A dark vision indeed, but Chomsky gives too much evidence and speaks with too much plain common sense to simply disregard it.
Very early morning is my best time to contemplate. I contemplate if all the disposable products that are marketed at us tend calibrate ours minds to disposable mode – disposable people, disposable time. Or if we are conditioned to think of all things, even time, as product – i.e., those neatly scheduled blocks of quality time we are supposed to plan with our children. It makes me think of Erich Fromm, his concept of having vs. being. Everyone has part of the puzzle. Perhaps the puzzle is not that hard. It’s just that – perhaps – and God knows I am not quick to leap to judgment – the web of power has an interest in obscuring the clear truth from the 99 percent. Because the truth would make us angry, as in French-Revolution angry.
I may be mistaken, but I get the idea Chomsky believes this world is all there is. He seems to see religious faith as a symptom of lower, less advanced society, at least when he talks about the American south. He thinks the only hope is for the people of the world to organize social activism groups and international unions. I do believe there is a power higher than the world’s web of international finance but I understand where Chomsky is coming from. It’s like people sense they are getting screwed. We know there are powerful organizations working daily against our personal interests, as evidenced by all our conspiracy theories. But most of us do not understand the details: things like how international currency values work and how trade deals are made that further enrich the wealthy while shutting down factories in towns or how deals are made that enable the manufacture of chemicals for short-term profit that destroy the atmosphere and God knows what else.
Even when we do understand the outlines of how these things work we feel helpless to do anything about it. We don’t have the money or the access to the fancy dinners and golf courses and conferences and schools where these deals are made that are sucking the life out of our little economies. So some of us go to church and pray. Chomsky might say this faith energy would be better devoted to organizing some action. And who am I to say he is wrong? That might be exactly God’s intention. My guess is that doing while praying would be the most productive plan.
So far I think the book has lived up to its title. It is furthering my understanding of power.