Saturday, February 06, 2016

Description of the World - Part 50

Jonathan I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment (Whatever else he’s accomplished, Israel has certainly documented the enormous if often underground influence of Spinoza in the 18th Century—not the metaphysician Spinoza of the Ethics but the political and social philosopher Spinoza of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. That little book was forbidden everywhere—it sometimes appeared between phony covers—but orthodox theologians and philosophers couldn’t resist refuting it, and that spread the infection as efficiently as the book itself. What seemed tremendously radical in 1680 may sound tame these days—religious tolerance, reading scripture in its historical context as the work of fallible human authors, discounting the miraculous, a naturalistic version of God, a thoroughgoing rationalism—but if you taught it to high school seniors, you’d still find yourself tarred and feathered in many districts. I have a family relationship to Spinoza. My father, who got his degree in geology, worked as a chemical engineer, and wound up running a small construction company, was very careful to avoid making any comments about his philosophical beliefs; but it struck me that his outlook was very similar to Spinoza right down to the deus sive natura. I always assumed, however, that Dad had arrived at this point of view by a parallel evolution of thought. Shortly before his death, either because his guard was down or the previous death of my mother meant he could be frank without upsetting a Christian, he told me he had read Spinoza at UCLA and simply decided the man was right.)

Alexander Murray, Reason and Society in the Middle Ages (I’ve read this book twice. What struck me most the first time was how terrified and ignorant of basic arithmetic the learned men of Europe were before 1000 and even after—Murray is interested in what motivated the rise of mathematical knowledge, but the footnotes and asides of the central section of the work provide raw material for a history of math phobia. The second time I read the book, I probably did the author’s intentions more justice by paying attention to his account of how Europe developed an intellectual elite and his study of the role of the nobility in religion. Murray provides a useful, philological correction/refinement to Nietzsche. Christianity may have been part of a slave revolt in morality, but the nobility looked on holiness as another form of arete, virtù as well as virtue.)

Companion to Historiography, ed. Michael Bentley (I often find myself writing in praise of dullness perhaps because my existence is standing proof of the futility of cleverness. Anyhow, this collection of historiographic essays is mostly sufficiently dull, but it is also very useful if you decide you want to know the state of play of historical issues such as the origin of the modern state or the causes of the French Revolution. I don’t know if it’s fair to history professors to suggest that what they look for from their students is more a mastery of the recent bibliography of an era or topic than a familiarity with what took place or a fresh take on what it all meant. If I were prepping for a blue book exam for a senior course, however, I’d sure find Bentley’s collection a superior cheat sheet. Is there such a thing as post-graduate Monarch Notes?)

Jonathan I. Israel, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790 (This is actually the third of Israel’s huge Enlightenment books—if publish or perish is the true rule, Israel may live forever. After defining a radical enlightenment and contrasting it with a moderate, compromising enlightenment in the previous volumes, Israel addresses the political efficacy of a set of ideas that came down from Spinoza and Pierre Bayle. One of his general themes in this and a subsequent work on the French Revolution is that under particular circumstances definable, specific ideas can explain political change. The set of ideas* that Israel identifies as decisive in this era are not deep or subtle. For many people now, in fact, they are practically common sense; and Israel seems to think that there cogency was obvious even at the beginning of the 18th Century, hence the vehement efforts right thinking men had to exert to suppress them. I'd tweak his list, if you were trying to come up with a secular version of the Laws of Noah, Spinoza would be a good place to start.

*Israel defines the radical enlightenment "as a package of basic concepts and values [that] may be summarized in eight cardinal points: (1) adoption of philosophical (mathematical-historical) reason as the only and exclusive criterion of what is true; (2) rejection of all supernatural agency, magic, disembodied spirits, and divine providence; (3) equality of all mankind (racial and sexual); (4) secular ‘universalism’ in ethics anchored in equality and chiefly stressing equity, justice, and charity; (5) comprehensive toleration and freedom of thought based on independent critical thinking; (6) personal liberty of lifestyle and sexual conduct between consenting adults, safeguarding the dignity and freedom of the unmarried and homosexuals; (7) freedom of expression, political criticism, and the press, in the public sphere; (8) democratic republicanism as the most legitimate form of politics.”)

Donald Kagan, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (I have trouble keeping the various Kagans straight. Donald is the patriarch of the three—there are more if you count the wives. Among those who interpret the Peloponnesian War allegorically for modern purposes, my current favorite is Marshall Sahlins. I can hardly recall Kagan’s take.)

Nelson Reed, The Caste War of Yucatan (For more than seventy years, the Mayans of the Yucatan engaged the Mexican central government and their local Europeanized oppressors in a series of revolts, sometimes maintaining themselves in independent territories and even winning recognition from the British. Reed’s book isn’t as memorable as the Rebellion in the Badlands (Os Sertões) of Euclides da Chunha, which tells the tale of another doomed insurrection, religious fanaticism, and “rational” racism; but is sufficiently depressing.)

Barbara W. Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (I guess this item was too entertaining for me. I apparently never got past page 23.)