The Great Books Of The Western World
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Black Sheep wrote: »At at any rate, what I started wondering was ... When exactly did we, in the West, lose that powerful sense of belief that appears to have existed prior?
Have we lost that sense of belief or have we transferred it onto something else? Science, money or ourselves?0
echo beach wrote: »Have we lost that sense of belief or have we transferred it onto something else? Science, money or ourselves?
Could be any or all of those.. I should have specified I definitely meant faith in God.
I think faith was integrated into the medieval and early Christian worldview in a really tangible way.
But interesting to wonder at what point that slide away crossed a tipping point. During or because of the Enlightenment is the classic claim. German radical Bible studies come up too.0
Finished THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR, which is a kind of mixture of trascendentalism, a vision of the scholar's role and a quick end call for a uniquely US academia.
Emerson's idea of man as one mind, a kind of gestalt being, feels reminiscent of some of earlier philosophies (Spinoza?) but if I'm honest it's the kind of metaphysics that I have limited interest in. We might behave as a herd, and there might be group psychology and all kinds of interesting inter group communication going on within us as a species, but we're not "one mind".
Emerson talks about the scholar as being "man thinking" in an ideal world, this one mind species' actual brain... Thinking deep and lofty thoughts, penetrating insights, resisting the pressure of the herd etc. I do actually agree with him that it becomes tragic when scholars (academics) are reduced to being mere transcribers and thinkers with a 'small T' (My phrasing, not his).
I'm going to read one last essay of his, SELF RELIANCE, and probably move on then.0
Emerson's SELF RELIANCE is one of the most interesting essays I have read in the course of this project. Rarely have I read an essay and so keenly had the sense that yes, this is truly a foundational stone of a country's nascent national character and philosophy. Either Emerson shaped the United States' sense of individualism over collectivism, or SELF RELIANCE captures that spirit around him.
He begins with a call to greatness that reminded me of THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR. His Trascendental philosophy is present when he writes:-Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.
But there is an almost savage turn then to complete individual sovereignty and an absolute rejection of every kind of ties that actually shocked me.Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested,--"But these impulses may be from below, not from above." I replied, "They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil." No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.
Incendiary stuff, and it's all like this..Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.
Haven't heard moral relativism advanced as keenly as this except when I was an eighteen year old and the 'edgy' kid in my philosophy class was explaining that good and evil are like, just a matter of opinion, man...
I think it was this paragraph below that particularly made me wince:-I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies;--though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked Dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.
It is easy to airbrush what Emerson writes, and make it a little more palatable. If someone props up SELF RELIANCE and were to dwell on the passage below as being its fundamental message, we might not find it so objectionable. But I cannot overlook the preceding paragraph, where he made very clear that this is not just a philosophy of individualism but a philosophy, I would say, of extreme selfishness, that possibly finds its endpath in Ayn Rand.It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
SELF RELIANCE does have some great, and well-known lines:-A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. [...] Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day
But of course it's typical that Emerson talks of speaking 'hard words' here, not just the truth, but 'hard words'. I think there's a self-awareness, a reflex that he is going to get push-back on what he's saying, and he seems to revel in it.
I don't know anything about Emerson's personal life, but I'd be curious whether he was as ****ty and inconstant a family member as SELF RELIANCE suggests he might be. All ties, including family, are to come secondary to his philosophy of self actualisation. Disagree? Resent me? He says you cleave to your truth and he will cleave to his. That might work with a friendship, but it's not usually what one says to your children, for example.
Anyway. A long post, and a bit of a hatchet job on Emerson, but I'm being as true as I can be to what SELF RELIANCE looks like, having read it cold, with only previous experience of some earlier essays and knowing nothing about his biography.0
THE COUNTER OF MONTE CRISTO rumbles on, a fantastic work.
I read a description of it lately, and it was explained that whereas THE THREE MUSKETEERS is an adventure swashbuckler, with a lot of action and not that much plot, THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO is a revenge fantasy that goes on and on with very little action... And yet it is remarkable how adroitly Dumas can hold our attention.0
I'm reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's THE SCARLET LETTER.
I think I had it confused with something about the Salem witch trials... The old movie with Winona Ryder... But of course it's actually the film with Gary Oldman and Demi Moore I was thinking of. If you google the posters for that movie, Oldman looks creepy as hell.
So far I'm still at the prologue where Hawthorne recounts a kind of semi-autobiographical account of the Counting House at Salem.0
Black Sheep wrote: »THE COUNTER OF MONTE CRISTO rumbles on, a fantastic work.
I read a description of it lately, and it was explained that whereas THE THREE MUSKETEERS is an adventure swashbuckler, with a lot of action and not that much plot, THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO is a revenge fantasy that goes on and on with very little action... And yet it is remarkable how adroitly Dumas can hold our attention.
I missed my typo in this post...
Can I just say that "THE COUNTER OF MONTE CRISTO" would have been a good thing for Sesame Street to do with The Count if they ever got tired of the vampire stuff?
Continuing THE SCARLET LETTER, I'll be done by the end of the week. I must say that the sinful offspring of Hester, the heroine, is quite difficult to get a read of. Perhaps deliberate on Hawthorne's part, was he actually writing her as a bad seed? I can never tell how progressive by contemporary standards or not some of these authors were in their social politics and intention. 'Pearl' is ungrateful, detached from her mother's pain and the way the character reads, if she was alive today she would be given an autistic diagnosis possibly?0
Done with Hawthorne.
Now: Charles Dickens GREAT EXPECTATIONS... A copy I bought about 25 years ago. I think my dad bought it for me actually, and I never actually read it.0
I'll make some comments now about THE SCARLET LETTER.
I think this is a situation where I possibly "didn't get it" as much as a person of the era might. I couldn't help but interpret some of themes through a more contemporary lens, and I think it's hard for us to fully grasp the intent of the author in writing about personal demons, damnation and shame. I think there's no doubt that Hawthorne is more like a modern person in his sensibilities than the puritans that he set the book amongst, but nonetheless...
My favourite observation in it is that the puritans gradually began to hold a kind of odd regard for Hester over time, due to her unfailingly positive behaviour towards the community. Despite the scarlet letter.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS, I am only a chapter in but already I'm a bit caught up in it. I guess I might have seen a cartoon version about 30 years ago, and I'm familiar with some of the elements from popular culture in general, but it's still pretty unknown to me. Pip is in the grasp of the convict, who is obviously thinking of releasing him to fetch a file from Joe Gargery's forge.0
I'm several chapters into GREAT EXPECTATIONS now. The beauty of a book published as a serial (Well, in three parts at any rate) is that the chapters seem deliberately sized for easy consumption. Approximately 4-6 pages of very self-contained plot development. Dickens really knew what he was doing. You might think you're not bothered, but within a page of each chapter you're drawn into the very particular scene concerned, he does setting amazingly well.
I'm surprised by how much is anachronistic / hard to quite understand, in terms of the activities and references Dickens makes. Ironically this has been less of an issue with the philosophy and 'ideas' books coming before Dickens in my reading list, perhaps because of the nature of the material concerned, and it being so referential to what has gone before. Whereas Dickens is very much down in the common mud and labour of his day, which is quite alien to us.0
Well, Monte Cristo has taken his revenge on the first of the trio who wronged him... Caderousse is dead.
I'm not sure if it's appropriate on this basis, but I would observe that just as Caderousse was never actively, calculatingly malicious to Dantes, the revenge which is visited upon him is not particularly well engineered by the Count directly, I would say. He dies, certainly, but Monte Cristo lets a lot of moving parts work to catch Caderousse up in their gears almost with an element of chance. I guess he trusts that Caderousse's own bad decisions will land him in bother.
Of course it's means I'm on the home stretch now. About 11 hours of audio left and I'm done. MIDDLEMARCH is up next, which I'm quite looking forward to, although it's another absolutely monster listen in terms of length.
Approaching probably 1/4 or 1/3 of the way through GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Still enjoying it, although it's more sort of ... humdrum... than I expected I think.0
I'm on the last hurdle of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, but time seems to have utterly slowed down.
I think I can barely remember a time the Count wasn't slowly unwinding his revenge. We're now past the endgame, the Count is like Frodo and the Hobbits returning to the Shire and having a torturous long goodbye with various characters. Meanwhile, the shoe of final punishment is just about to drop on Baron Danglars.
I'm more than halfway through GREAT EXPECTATIONS. I continue to be amazed at how alien Dickens' London is to me.0
It strikes me that the mistreatment of Joe Gargery by Pip in GREAT EXPECTATIONS is the most emotionally powerful element of the book so far. From a selfish point of view I'd like a reconciliation, but I doubt it's coming.
Joe's relationship to Pip reminds me of my relationship with my own children. It doesn't really matter if they are difficult, you tolerate it, there's an elasticity to the love you feel for them that has a limit that's difficult to find.
I'm a eleven chapters into the audiobook of MIDDLEMARCH. My opinion of it is that it's higher brow than Jane Austen, and although it possibly lacks quite the same page turning quality, it's close. Elliott has some great lines (Which I'm struggling to recall now).
Rosamund Vincy gives out to her brother for ordering a hot breakfast late in the morning, which surely should be an irritation to the serving staff moreso than her. She says he is a disagreeable brother, and he rebukes her:-
I don't make myself disagreeable; it is you who find me so. Disagreeable is a word that describes your feelings and not my actions
Look at my mother; you don't see her objecting to everything except what she does herself. She is my notion of a pleasant woman.
I don't know why this amuses me so much, but it does.
This is a weird connection to make, but it reminds me of an interview I heard with an American POW who shared a cramped cell in Hanoi with a guy who snored relentlessly. At first, he hated the snorer, and then eventually he came to a kind of realisation that his annoyance was his own problem, and no one else's.0
Heading towards the endgame of GREAT EXPECTATIONS.
It has its laugh out loud moments, and there is plenty of pathos, but it also feels like it's of its time. I'll be happy enough to move on.
MIDDLEMARCH is going to be going on until winter I would say, 28 hours of listening left.0
Completed GREAT EXPECTATIONS.
I guess I enjoyed it. It'll certainly stay with me, that's for sure.
At the end of the Penguin Classics version I read there was an odd little note on the epilogue which went in to a couple of different endings for GREAT EXPECTATIONS that Dickens considered, and which were debated about. There were various editions published with different endings, although the difference between all of them was pretty negligible. They all hinged, essentially, on the degree to which Estella would express regret to Pip about the decisions she made (I think).
The version in my edition basically said that GREAT EXPECTATIONS was intended to be a morality tale and that it was important to Dickens that Pip gained nothing from what he did during the time he was rich, except from the one morally good thing he did, which was to help his friend become a partner in a shipping business. So at the end of GREAT EXPECTATIONS, when Pip is destitute, he is given a place to live in the house of the friend he supported, and is given the job of clerk in the business.0
MIDDLEMARCH trundles on. Despite it's length I have to say I'm getting really into it. Some wonderful behavioural observations, and the characters are brilliant.
Following GREAT EXPECTATIONS I'm having a change of pace... John Stewart Mill's ON LIBERTY.
Mill was an English philosopher and MP, and I guess better known for his being a utilitarian and raised as an ideological follower of Jeremy Bentham.
What I'm interested in is how clear his notion of 'liberty' actually is. I find it a very frustrating concept as - even today - it is usually North Americans who talk and write about 'liberty', in law, philosophy and so on, and 'liberty' is invoked by them so often, it does a lot of heavy lifting on that side of the atlantic, but is not so important on this side, where rights have a meaning within a legal framework, but 'liberty' as an idea is harder to find in concrete black and white terms.0
In the introduction of ON LIBERTY Mill makes an interesting point.
When we think the government is antagonistic to our interests, we actively try to put limits on their powers. We succeed to a greater or lesser degree.
But he makes the point that when we think the government is of a like mind to us, and is representing us, then that is when things become dangerous because we will approve any expansion of their power.
Mill is particularly concerned that in the latter example the government governs based on viewpoints and customs representative of the elites or the majority, not the whole people.
Paradoxically, in a state where the government is looked askance by everyone, the minority dissident might be better protected than in one where there is a tyranny of the majority, where the majority rubber stamp the reaching of the government beyond the law and into customs, opinions and private life.0
Still enjoying Mill ON LIBERTY.
Mill talks about the resistance of people to countenance that the beliefs they hold could be wrong. Mill puts forth the strongest examples he can think of of eminent thinkers who were geniuses in their day, and yet held wildly wrong beliefs. Marcus Aurelius, probably a philosopher and ruler of such raw potential as has never been surpassed in an absolute monarch. And he persecuted the Christians, he got that badly wrong. Mill imagines an alternate history where it was Marcus Aurelius, not Constantine, who brought Christianity into the centre of life in the West, and the superior intellectual life that might have created.
He also warns against the loss when opinions are not challenged and reasoned out in the public square. The biggest loser, Mill warns, could be the holders of true beliefs, who never have the chance to see them battle-tested and proven superior to erroneous beliefs. Mill talks about how received wisdom, never challenged but just held to be true, becomes like a stiff article of faith which can be blown over at the slightest future turbulence, because the people who 'believe' it do not know what the reasons underpinning it are.
I wonder if this isn't a trap that Christians today have visibly fallen into. In philosophy of religion there is no final resolution on fundamental questions such as is there a god, or around the problem of god's omnipotence and human free will... These remain in play for Christian philosophers and their opponents. But in the mainstream culture I think there is a perception that the arguments of the "new atheists" have more intellectual weight than the views of believers. This stems, in my view, from many Christians having basically abdicated a willingness to contest and debate these matters in the public sphere. You certainly won't see many priests or bishops in Ireland debating some of these questions on a Sunday, or on the radio, or on a stage. There's a cohort of U.S based apologists, both Catholic and Protestant, who still do this, but they're something of a curiosity in many ways these days, think. At one point in time there was a close relationship between belief and reasonable argument, but that link has been broken and we've slid into the peril of a faith based solely on received wisdom, the trap Mill warned of.
Mill also makes an observation about the weight of legal proscriptions on particular beliefs. He says that the penalty imposed by law is just a visible marker of the much more powerful social enforcement that goes on. So you receive a fine for holding a proscribed belief, but Mill says it's the fact that society also shuns you that is the real penalty. He talks about people not being able to earn their bread as a consequence.1
Alexander De Toqueville DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA.
A very interesting take on the genesis of American democracy and how the townships and puritan's backgrounds were particularly relevant to how democracy emerged in America. There is a broader discussion going on about equality and how there is a risk of 'tyranny of the majority'. This fits very well with Mill's ON LIBERTY.
Still grinding away with MIDDLEMARCH too, which I'm still enjoying. It's just absolutely huge.0
I’m on holidays!!
Finished De Tocqueville and also THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO by Marx and Engels.
About halfway through WALDEN by Thoreau.0
Finished WALDEN and CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE.
Debating what to read now, I have TREASURE ISLAND.0
I'll try to make sense of recent reading, which has been super-charged by having extensive holiday time.
Finished DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, which was most interesting as a study of the sociological origins of early US government. It does a good job of explaining how the puritan settlers in particular were educated and all of a middle class (Neither poor serf types or powerful aristocrats) who were prepared to cooperate in a newly egalitarian but aggressively capitalistic enterprise. DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA is also interesting - and it gels very well with Mill and Thoreau - in that the author is very concerned with the "tyranny of the majority". He is prescient in identifying that it will be the weight of the public opinion (the majority) that becomes as effective an enforcer of group expectations as the laws they draft. De Tocqueville basically argues that a dissenter in a majoritarian society can find no-one to shelter him in an effective manner. He makes a (possibly spurious) argument that at least in less free, more unequal societies, there are different powering factions, and a dissenter will usually be able to hide behind one or other of them and gain protection in an effective manner. Whereas in a majoritarian society, if the majority is against you then there is no shelter possible.
Then I read THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. Interesting, brief and obviously extremely significant in its offering of this historical analysis about power relations between classes and control of the means of production as being pretty much more important than anything else. What stuck with me is that in some ways the picture Marx paints - of a proletariat so poor that they can own nothing and never work to obtain a decent standard of living before they die - must have had some relevance in the 19th century but then his problem was that it became increasingly not the case for most people in the West. Living and working conditions improved to a peak of our lifetime. The question I have now is whether we are now sliding down from that peak.
Thoreau I liked much better than his teacher Emerson. WALDEN is quite an enjoyable month by month account of his building a cabin in the New England woods, and living on less than one hundred dollars a year. Thoreau comes across as a privileged maverick, and his advocacy for living as a kind of possession-less brahmin probably will continue to have an enduring appeal for a certain type of young man, but the idea of adopting off-grid subsistence farming as a deliberate choice for anyone with dependents is an obvious fail.
His CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE essay is more challenging, I almost didn't bother finishing it as it's the same vein of infantile "me first" that we find in Emerson and which Americans seem to continue to love in their philosophy. The short version - Thoreau will do what he considers to be the right thing, and he considers laws largely irrelevant. Makes sweeping claims about nothing good coming from the government, but rather any good which arises comes from the good people in government and would arise whether the government was there or not.
Then I read TREASURE ISLAND. Yes, still a wonderful adventure story. Reading it 30+ years on from whatever children's edition I probably read last time, I notice that this time around Squire Trelawney comes out of things as rather a fool, in hindsight, and perhaps Jim Hawkins not much better - albeit a brave and lucky one. For my money although Doctor Livesay is an obvious hero choice, it is Captain Smallett who is the stand-out for me. Seems like the disability advocates should be championing Long John Silver as a role-model. Kills a bloke by throwing a flying crutch at the middle of his back. Impressive.
I read a couple of throw-away urban fantasy / horror novels, KILL THE DEAD and THE PRESIDENT'S VAMPIRE, and forgot them just as quick.
Currently I'm about halfway through Iain M. Banks' CONSIDER PHLEBAS, which is, in fairness, an exceptional space opera and the first of his Culture novels. There are, in hindsight, a few odd side journeys contained within it, however, that could have been omitted with little loss to the overall narrative, and which don't even really seem to relate to the Culture universe to a great degree (There's a sizeable chapter where the anti hero is washed up on a desert island and almost eaten by a religious cult, it's bafflingly irrelevant to what else is going on).
This week I finished MIDDLEMARCH on audiobook and will only say that this is certainly a book for people who have experienced marriage and adult relationships, if they want to get the best out of it. I don't understand what the point is in giving this book to undergraduates to read, can't believe they could get much out of it, to be honest.
I also finished the brief but very excellent FREEDOM by Sebastian Junger, which I heartily recommend. It's a mixture of travelogue (He walks hundreds of miles of train tracks in the US, living off grid on the way) and meditation on the nature of freedom.
Next from my classics reading list - MOBY DICK!0
MOBY DICK is a bit delayed.
I'm still reading CONSIDER PHLEBAS by Iain Banks, taking a little longer than expected to finish.
I had bought the 3 LORD OF THE RINGS audiobooks a while ago with Audible credits, so I'm listening to THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING now. This is the gold standard of audiobooks ... Great narration... Sound quality a tiny bit dated but it still whisks you away to Middle Earth.0
Several chapters into MOBY DICK.
Melville does an excellent job of painting a picture of what New Bedford / a whaling town was like. It still just amazes me that with the tools and level of technology they had that whaling was ever a thing. And of course, as Melville mentions, humans have been doing it right back as far as when we were in canoes.
In audiobook I'm really enjoying THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. Truly, I'd forgotten how wonderful LOTR is. I'll never understand the people who don't get it.0
I've really slowed down on my reading unfortunately. A bit of a log jam with busy work schedule, increased gym training, chucking in 20 minutes of yoga a night and ... Well, not much time to delve into MOBY DICK at the moment sadly.
It'll all shake out.0
MOBY DICK moving decently well now!0
Still asail with MOBY DICK. Some of the whaling scenes make me really nauseous, just reading them. Blowholes spouting out arterial gore, clots of blood described by Melville as like the dregs from a red wine bottle. It reminded me of the whaling scene from "The North Water" BBC tv show that I saw on Googlebox. Colin Farrell stuck his harpoon directly down into the whale's blowhole. Disgusting really.0
On the home stretch with MOBY DICK.
I'm not sure why I've struggled with closing the door on this one, I've polished off much more difficult texts in less time.
I actually can't fault the book itself, for the most part. It's engaging and some really great characters in there. It's less buried in nautical gobbledegook than the average Patrick O'Brien book (Which rapidly become practically unintelligible in their anorak-level accuracy of detail).
I do dislike the constant forays into philosophising about the nature of the whale, but even these 'aside' chapters where Melville riffs on all things whale are interesting for at least the first few times.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is up next, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't expecting that to be a bit of a kick in the teeth, but... Hey ho...0
Completed MOBY DICK, in a bit of a final rush.
I'm not sure what I thought about the ending... I feel like everyone knows that Ahab's monomania and ego lead to him coming to a bad end, although I found his final conversation with Starbuck oddly touching, almost regretful. I feel like if this was a more modern novel Melville would have made more of Ishmael's survival and the aftermath, but maybe the book didn't need it.
I read, very briefly, that some have considered that Melville partly wrote MOBY DICK as an attack on the kind of muscular American transcendentalism of Emerson and others, concerned that it could lead to Ahab-like beliefs that a man could master nature rather than inevitably it being the other way around.
I guess for a long time we had our way with nature, for all of the 20th century, and maybe now we're starting to see our own 'white whale' in the spectre of a global temperature rise or whatever shape climate disaster will ultimately take.
In literary terms I would have to say that MOBY DICK is genuinely a beautiful novel, some of the best prose of any I've read so far in this process.0