I lied.

Yesterday: Second Treatise on Civil Government    Tomorrow: ???

Twitter: @GreatBooksDude

Website: http://goetzeducation.wordpress.com/our-mission/

Book: The Bubble Boys: How Mistaken Educational Ideals and Practices are Causing a Warped Social Fabric

So I love top-ten lists.  But today I have something much more relevant and more interesting to write.  And besides, what I don’t want to do is give away for free some of the contents that you should get from taking my courses.  Now THAT would be retarded.

How many of you saw the Rays-Red Sox game from Monday night?  (I realize I have readers from all over the globe and that, for the most part, you guys are not interested in baseball.  But bear with this one.  It’s not a baseball post.  It’s a philosophy post.  This is me really, really, really bringing the classics to life–showing their relevance and sophistication, including that of several books I have already posted on.)  It was a big story–the Rays won a one-run game, but the Red Sox should have tied the score had the umpire (Jerry Meals) not blown the call on a play at the plate.  Meals was in bad position.  From his angle it was impossible to see Daniel Nava’s foot touch home plate before the tag was clamped down on him by the catcher.  So the Red Sox, rather than sending the game into extra innings, lost by a run.

Immediately the uproar began: baseball MUST have instant replay by next season.  They’re the last major sport to implement so many things, and how can they let the integrity of the game be challenged by missed calls such as this one?  Why do they let major objections–notably a) the “human element” objection (where people argue that having humans determine the outcome of the game is part of its charm and tradition) and b) the “length-of-game” objection (where it is claimed that baseball games are long enough already)–get in the way of an “obvious solution”?  And again, what about the “continuous play” objection.  Runners are on first and second; a ball is laced to the outfield, and it’s unclear whether it was trapped or caught.  The umpire rules it caught.  Replay shows that it landed clean on the grass and bounced into the center fielder’s glove.  The batter is awarded a single.  Where do the runners go?  To second and third?  What if there were two outs and we could assume plausibly that the runner on second would have scored?

There are other objections too–all teams must have equally capable facilities for using replay, and the administrative apparatus is uncertain–would you employ an extra umpire, costly as it is, to review all plays?  Would you put a chip on the players?  Would you have the coaches allotted a certain number of challenges at the beginning of the game?  What would you do?  What plays should be subject to instant replay?  Which calls are most controversial?  Should we review balls and strikes–there are more of those calls than of safe-and-out at home plate calls, right?

Watching one of my favorite shows at my mother’s house–I live without television–the panel of reporters on “Outside the Lines” put together a hodgepodge of opinions on both the impropriety and the propriety of using instant replay.  Jayson Stark of ESPN and Richard Justice, formerly of the Houston Chronicle, are in favor; against it were Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe and Terence Moore, formerly of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  (Sadly, I know the name of every major metropolis’ newspaper.  Shame they’ll all be gone soon.)  Moore’s lines of argumentation were so brilliant, and so perceptive, that I was forced to draw comparisons between them and philosophy.

As with so many things that seem “obvious” to so many people, though, this one is in fact far from obvious.  If enough people repeat something, rest assured that it is wrong.  We have already seen the “human element” objection in our consideration of The Iliad.  The gods attempt to interfere with the war, but ultimately they are not as powerful as fate.  Omniscience does not substitute for determination.  Knowledge is not power.

The time element is a more intriguing argument.  It has long been speculated that argument takes more time than settlement by replay.  Moore was, as I mentioned, in the forefront.  He argued that this requires the assumption that the case is settled, but in many cases–and some especially notable recent ones, such as the A’s Indians game of May 8 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kNYAI-d8UA)–the case is anything but settled by instant replay.  Nor, for that matter, is it necessarily faster; Moore brought up the relevant point here as well, noting that at many football games fans are constantly complaining about the amount of time taken up by officials reviewing replays rather than by game action.  At least, Moore said, this is interesting camera time.  Baseball players arguing is almost never boring.  And in some cases, such as the one you can see above, the manager will still argue after instant replay has been used.  In effect now you have doubled the delay in the game.

In taking this line he was going against the line of the legendary Dodgers’ broadcaster, Vin Scully.  As a die-hard, lifelong Dodgers fan (and I’m sorry to all my lovely girlfriends, but the Dodgers are my only true love), I have the deepest admiration and respect for him.  In many ways I view him as infallible, having been broadcasting the team since the late 1940s and having done World Series games as well as huge football games and golf tournaments.  Scully’s legendary “blinkin’ fertilizer” call of August 7, 2012 was among his greatest calls–translating Jim Tracy’s tirade without cussing himself and noting his stance in favor of replay: http://hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2012/08/07/vin-scully-is-the-blinkin-best/ Moore managed to make Scully’s position look absurd.

The last relevant point, though, applies to the previous case as well, blinkin’ fertilizer or not: no matter how many cameras there are, there is not always certainty on any play.  Scully said as much in his call.  The matter is one of epistemology–the theory of how we know what we know, and when we know it.  There are several lines of thought here.  One of the ancient lines says that we don’t know anything, and until we admit that we aren’t capable of very intelligent conduct.  Skepticism has ranged through thinkers from Socrates to Montaigne to Hume to Emerson.  This line would oppose instant replay.  Another line says that we are born with a blank slate, and that successive experiences build an interpretative apparatus in our minds–that we then get more intelligent and capable of knowledge.  This line would favor instant replay.  A third line says that we can only know things through God–this line is irrelevant, but would probably be against instant replay.  And the fourth major line says that we only know things if we perceive them.  This is Bishop Berkeley’s line, and despite its seeming absurdity, it is nearly impossible to refute.  Johnson tried and failed.  Hume tried and failed.  It is to this one that instant replay proponents must turn for support.  We are more capable of perceiving the proper call if we have more looks at a play and more time to look at it.  But when we cannot perceive the right call, what do we do?

This is what Richard Justice and Jayson Stark argued–namely, that instant replay is necessary not because it will make every call clear and right, but because it will make more calls better.  The point is well-taken.  But how many more calls, and as against what cost?  This is no absolute argument.  The administrative questions still need answers.  So do the questions about time.  And the ones about continuous play.

Moore even went on seemingly to argue that the most important calls are the most difficult ones and the ones that, historically, replay has done the least to clarify.  He cited Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception of 1972 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07zsdF0ysP0).  For forty years fans have been watching reviews of this play from every conceivable angle; still there is no certainty whether it was a catch or an incompletion.  Or the “outfield fly” call from last year’s National League Wild Card game (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vAbIEkZU2TY).  Stark said that 90% of umpires believe it at present, privately, to have been a blown call.  But that isn’t 100% either.  I can add to this the “Music City Miracle” of 2000–forwards or backwards lateral (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K_zg-J0q42M)?  I’m nowhere near sure, and the technology is not anywhere near as clear as the video claims it is.  For that matter, would replay have settled the infamous Berra-Robinson play at home plate in the 1955 World Series (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XY-XshGhMU)?  Or, Moore asked–and this is the really big one–what about–the Kennedy assassination?  Who shot JFK?  Replay after replay after replay, angle after angle after angle–still no certainty.

So….the Great Books Dude thinks he is taking Moore’s position.  He doesn’t like Instant Replay and hates the arrogance of those who claim it solves everything (including members of his nuclear family).  What line do you take, and on what side of the fence are you?  Please reply quickly and firmly, if you must!  The press is hot!


Life, Liberty, Property

Yesterday: Discourse on Democracy    Tomorrow: Ten Great Works of Political Theory

Twitter: @GreatBooksDude

Website: http://goetzeducation.wordpress.com/our-mission/

A good morning to get my car serviced.  Hopefully I don’t get hit on too much this time.  But of course there are worse things in the world than having a few bad women too interested.

While I’m here, though, I figure I’ll write up a short bit on one of the greatest (and–AGAIN!–one of the shortest) works of political theory, namely John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government.  Locke was a British philosopher whose works include An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (about the theory of knowledge), Some Thoughts Concerning Education, and A Letter Concerning Toleration, among others.  A complete thinker, Locke, like Milton, was a clear proponent of civil liberty, writing in an age when Parliament was again asserting legislative control over its monarch, this time ousting King James II–bloodlessly–and importing the Dutch royal family, William and Mary.

Locke’s thesis in his Second Treatise is dimwittedly simple.  The government is in place to protect the lives, liberties, and properties of its citizens.  Anything it does to violate these purposes renders it illegitimate, and the people are then within their rights if they choose to “alter or abolish” it.  In essence, government serves a purpose because men would not otherwise give up their liberties to have one.

So Locke, like many Enlightenment political philosophers, begins with the “state of nature”–the state wherein men are at war with one another and with their surroundings. He follows the ordinary chain of logic to make the next assumption, which is that they bond together for protection from both of their opponents.  When they do this, though, Locke argues that they do so to a limited degree; unlike Hobbes, who is widely considered to be his intellectual counterpart, he does not assume that in forming mutual defense alliances that become “society” they give up all of their rights.

This work has had an enormous impact, notably (as has been extremely well-documented) on Thomas Jefferson and the American founders.  But recently Locke has been intellectually ripped.  Nothing could show the bankruptcy of the university system more clearly than this: on one hand, university scholars are now arguing that Locke places strong constraints on private property, and on the other they are arguing that Locke was merely a tool used by William and Mary to justify their own usurpation (as was claimed in Billionaire’s Ball). 

Are these people retarded?

The Best of All…Really?

Friday: Areopagitica          Tomorrow: Second Treatise on Civil Government

Twitter: @GreatBooksDude

Website: http://goetzeducation.wordpress.com/our-mission/

Book: The Bubble Boys: How Mistaken Educational Ideals and Practices are Causing a Warped Social Fabric

Wow, everyone, I needed that break…I’ve had to tell too many people too many times what I’m trying to do with the Great Books program, as though it’s somehow extremely difficult.  This is in fact really simple: in exchange for being paid you will get the best quality education because I will tell you what classics to read and we will discuss them in a small group, if in LA then in person, if elsewhere then by Google Hangouts.  Really not very complicated.  Since I am completely unique intellectually–all one has to do is look at my reading list, then my age (again, I’m 25), and they can tell that I’m not exactly like just any other teacher.  Perhaps more people should read Plutarch’s “On Listening”.

In any event, today I want to write briefly about the two big problems with democracy.  I am working on my third book, The Conundrum of the Democratic Ideal, to explore this–I don’t know that I have the right approach for a book-length work, but I think so, and the thoughts are certainly clear in my head.  Conceptually it is fairly simple.

Basically for democracy to really work, two primary elements need to subsist: first, that the mass of the people are informed and know how to interpret information that they are given; and second, that dissent is managed with decency and diligence and not simply stifled without remorse or care for consequences.  I believe in my core that both elements are impossible over the long-term, and that what in essence happens to most democracies is that they either 1) meet some catastrophic end such as being subject to conquest or 2) they morph into some other less pleasant form of government, usually a choice between oligarchy/plutocracy, elected monarchy and eventually autocracy, absolutism, or totalitarianism.  One of the elements of any course I will teach on political theory will be a definition of the various forms of government, so I’ll leave that blank here and you can ask me if you’d like.

In the last fifty years the United States has become preoccupied with statistics and quotations.  These are two mechanisms by which information is transmitted, but they are not by any means the only ones, and many other more important and more precise measures of information are being suppressed or ignored.  Look at how writing teachers teach students to write–one thing my course in the fall will address is the various kinds of facts and how selection from among them determines the strength of the writer’s argument–and you’ll get a good picture.  Most teachers are nowadays telling their students that the ONLY valid facts are statistics and quotations, raw and unprocessed.  Yet these two kinds of information can both be subject to extensive manipulation and external control, and in fact these come out as the weakest forms of fact when really put to the test against other types, such as first-hand experience (which teachers are telling their students NEVER TO USE).

As to an increasing degree the populace becomes entranced by the snippet, the statistic or the quotation, the real substantive forms of fact get left to those in power to act upon.  In the short-term this may not mean too much.  In the slightly longer-term, though, this cedes power more or less completely to those who already hold some, giving them absolute power.  And we all know Lord Acton’s famous dictum, that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

In the mean time, however, the snippet, because it has come to be considered strict truth and the only kind of strict truth, has led to the demonization of political opposition.  Anyone who does not see the snippet exactly as they are told to is considered to be either a) stupid, b) stubborn, c) too cowardly to face the facts, or d) anti-authoritarian.  We’ve seen this in debates about economic and fiscal policy (opponents of increasing government intervention are always called stupid), government subsidies to individuals and/or institutions (opponents called stubborn), those who disagree with what is either global warming or climate change (despite having to change its name because the facts did not support the premise, opponents are called too cowardly to face the facts), and d) resistance to gun control legislation (opponents are labelled anti-authoritarian).

This means that the angels who seek to impose all of these policies will, for the most part, get their way.  But it also means that the government grows much larger, that it cannot be made smaller, and that an increasing class of government workers can exercise the monopoly of force that government implies in more arbitrary ways.  One common phrase says that you “can’t fight City Hall”.  Certainly every time I have tried–from objecting to a teacher at a public school teaching the wrong class to objecting to my streets being coned off so that I cannot access my own home by car beyond a certain hour–I have been met with threats of prosecution and jail time.  I am of course highly intimidated—pffffff.  Yeah, right.  But the difference between the threat and the reality is mostly slim, and I’m sophisticated enough to squirm away when others aren’t necessarily so.

But with angelic government comes extreme danger: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”  This is of course the great quote from The Federalist #51, and it is as relevant today as it was in 1789.  Make no mistake about it.  Human nature never changes, hence the relevance of every book I comment on and every book I seek to teach.

We live in an age where our foreign policy sponsors “building democracy” abroad, yet consistently seems to lead other nations right back to absolutism; where all men are considered equal, but some men are more equal than other men; and where the intellectual abilities of thousands upon thousands of students are stifled daily by democratic requirements for teacher hiring, where the students are intellectually emasculated and converted into sheep to simply follow the next leader, and where our next generation is being bred to carry on a system that doesn’t really seem to be working too well as it is, with lots of winners and lots of losers.  Those winners will assume power when the time is ripe.  Rest assured.

While I am not an alarmist, it is clear that we are in a dangerous time and dangerous position.  There is a reason I am teaching these courses, of course, and that is it.  Just remember this, the next time you hear that democracy is unquestionably better than all other kinds of government: the longest-lasting and most successful straight government in history was the Roman Republic that lasted for some six hundred years before Christ, and the other candidate (though it has morphed in form over the years and cannot be considered a continuous one) is the British monarchy which has ruled from 1066 to the present.  It is not democracy that has succeeded the most.  It seems abundantly clear from a thorough study of history that the best form of government is not a democracy but instead a republic.

Do you even know what a republic is, or would you like me to teach you??

On Speaking Freely

Yesterday: Beowulf       Monday or Tuesday: Discourse on Democratic Governance

Twitter: @GreatBooksDude

Website: http://goetzeducation.wordpress.com/our-mission/

Book: The Bubble Boys: How Mistaken Educational Ideals and Practices are Causing a Warped Social Fabric

I spoke yesterday of the great Anglo-Saxon epic and its distaste for monarchy; there is of course another great English epic, Paradise Lost, and its author, too, was not a fan.  John Milton was a strong proponent of all forms of liberty–civil liberty, domestic liberty, religious liberty–too strong, as it turns out, because he would be an anarchist if followed literally, and a society built on his ideas would simply await its next dictator.  But here I write not to focus on Milton’s epic–which I can do at another time–but instead to note his tract on freedom of speech, Areopagitica.

To begin with I should probably give some background on the times.  When it was published in 1644, England was in the midst of a brutal civil war which resulted in the execution of its monarch, Charles I.  The origins of the war are numerous, but two elements of its background are particularly notable: 1) Charles’ claim to the throne was bolstered by the theory of the “divine right of kings”–that they were put on the throne by God–which led him to attempt to impose absolute power.  There were other reasons for absolutism–namely that at this time England, France, Spain, and The Netherlands were all of about equal military strength and all in conflict, so the word of the king as military commander needed to be absolute–and absolutism is not totalitarianism, nowhere near as destructive–but when Charles attempted to resurrect a dormant tax without the consent of his Parliament he met heavy opposition.  2) Charles’ religious motivations were dubious, and his wife was a French Catholic princess.  To the staunchly Protestant Scots–his own dynasty was primarily Scottish–his marriage and some of his religious policies were dubious and distasteful.  They rebelled.  The English followed suit.  The Archbishop William Laud, who supported Charles, fostered this mutual distaste.  Laud was beheaded in 1645, and Charles in 1649.  Milton, a Parliamentarian, was opposed to both of them on both fronts.

In 1644, then, in the midst of the English Civil War (1642-49), when Parliament declared a “licensing act” to approve texts prior to publication, Milton saw it as intrusive on liberty.  To Milton, who had visited an aged Galileo, then under house arrest, in 1638, censorship was bound to interfere with the production and acceptance of the best ideas.  Milton believed and argued in Areopagitica that while there are both good and bad works, it is really by comparing the one with the other that we can figure out which are which.  To be learned means to have read all kinds of works, not simply ones you agree with, and to figure out which ones you disagree with and why you disagree with them.  Censorship does not allow that.

Milton argues that in ancient Greece and Rome bad authors and books were punished or burnt, but not until after the reception of their works.  To stifle works prior to their reception thus does not have the precedent of ancient history–which the English Parliament was in part trying to resurrect in ousting the monarch–but instead has only the precedent of the very religious body that they so feared Charles’ wife would re-impose on them, namely the Roman Catholic Church.  Furthermore censorship will not protect the ignorant from access to terrible ideas, since they wouldn’t encounter them anyways.  Beyond this, censorship will not be objective–it will be placed in the hands of a subjective, arbitrary censor, who might suppress good works for bad reasons.

Milton is, of course, 100% correct.  And here he does not take the anarchical stance that anything and everything may be written and published.  He prefers the existing law, which said that works must have the author’s and printer’s (or publisher’s) name on them.  This ensures that scandalous or libelous works will be suppressed and/or punished.

What’s even better is that Milton published it in defiance of the Licensing Act against which he was arguing.  He did not issue it as a speech, but instead as a pamphlet.  Two cheers for a man with some nuts!!

I think that of all the great, short classics I’ve read, Areopagitica had the most immediate and awe-inspiring impact on me.  At 33 pages it took little time and little effort to read, but a little more to process.  In any course on political theory I would put it in, and I find it highly relevant and highly informative, especially in an age where we supposedly value freedom of speech, but if asked almost nobody could give you the reasons why that right is important.  And political theory is one of the things I would most like to teach, because there is such fascinating material, like this one.

Sayonara, and I will see you on Monday or Tuesday!

Hero, Hero, King (Not Hero)

Yesterday: Top Ten Histories     Tomorrow: Areopagitica

Website: http://goetzeducation.wordpress.com/our-mission/

Twitter: @GreatBooksDude

We are taught in the modern US to hate monarchy, that democracy is the best form of government, has historically been the most conducive to happiness, and is more inclusive.  This view is patently false, removed from sound historical reasoning, and distasteful to an intelligent observer.  But there have been many critiques of monarchy, beginning with Samuel I in the Bible, and among the most notable ones has been Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon epic.

Beowulf begins when the king Hrothgar’s palace is being hounded by a monster.  The monster Grendel is eating his guards and causing fear throughout the whole realm; the ineffective Hrothgar can do nothing to stop him.  Arriving at his coast, Beowulf tells the coast guards that he has come to earn glory for himself and his noble Geats, by ridding Hrothgar of this menace.  He arrives at Hrothgar’s palace, and tells Hrothgar that he wishes to fight Grendel alone, and without his weapons, just hand-to-hand as the monster prefers to fight.

After engaging in a contest of words with a high noble at dinner–the noble demeans Beowulf’s deeds because he has not heard of them, much as you have seen my deeds spoken about by others–Beowulf and his party go off to sleep.  Grendel comes in the middle of the night and eats one of Beowulf’s men.  Beowulf, still awake, suddenly attacks the monster.  They grapple for some time.  Beowulf rips off his arm, and Grendel heads back to his mother’s underwater home, where he bleeds to death.

In the next few days Grendel’s mother begins to renew his attacks in vengeance for her son’s death.  Beowulf again feels compelled to fight, so he seeks out the mother underwater in her own home.  Everyone fears that he will at best drown to death.  At best.  They agree that if he is not back in some time they will assume he has failed and head home in mourning.  The time arrives and they begin to leave.  But in the mean time, we are privy, as readers, to a combat scene of surpassing brilliance, which ends in Beowulf’s victory by decapitation of the mother.  He comes up to shore, is recognized, cheered as heroic, and they all head back to the palace.

At this point the scene shifts, and we are fast forwarded fifty years to Beowulf’s homeland, where he is now king.  He has patiently waited for the succession to fall to him, not engaging in any criminal activity.  But now as king he is confronted with a crisis.  A dragon sits on a hoard of treasure, of which a drunken peasant has one night stolen a goblet.  The dragon has accordingly begun war against Beowulf’s kingdom.  The aged Beowulf sets out with eleven nobles to confront the dragon.  Approaching him, the nobles shy away, cowards to the bone.  Beowulf fights alone.  He dispatches the dragon, as one of his nobles, Wiglaf, comes back to help him after witnessing his struggle, but Beowulf is wounded so badly that he dies.

A funeral scene ensues wherein Wiglaf notes that the destruction of their kingdom is near.  Other nations will hear of the cowardly nobles and attack them.  Beowulf is buried and the dragon’s remains are thrown into the sea.

Now two things stand out to me about Beowulf the poem.  The first is its structure.  To me the structure is obvious: there are three monsters and three battles.  Each one represents a section of the poem.  Three is an obviously Christian number, and the religious overtones of the poem support the conclusion.  Three times the cock shall crow.  Beowulf is abandoned by his eleven nobles (the number of the true apostles is of course 11).  But scholars have sometimes argued that the poem should be structured around the funerals, of which there are four.  To justify this they claim that one of the funeral scenes is in fact not a funeral, merely a lay; but it is clear from the context that a ritual animal sacrifice, associated with funerals, is happening in it, so this is a mistake.

The second thing that stands out is that the position of king is marked by complete futility.  The kings, Hrothgar and Beowulf, who are most prominent in the poem are also the biggest losers.  Now this is something I focus on fairly heavily in The Decline of the Epic?, so I’d advise you to check there.  But the crux of my thesis is this: if epics are nationalist in nature, and this is an Anglo-Saxon poem, is it any surprise that the English-speaking peoples become the most active and fervent anti-monarchists of all the European nations????

The whole poem is a short 100 pages and, God willing, I will be teaching it next summer in my course on the epics.  Check this to see whether others don’t like it: http://inkslingerblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/book-review-beowulf/

I will leave you until tomorrow.  That will be my last post until Monday or possibly Tuesday, as I am leaving for Las Vegas this weekend.

I hope this finds you well!

From Daggers to Archers to Cannon

Yesterday: Commentary on Extravagance in United States    Tomorrow: Beowulf

Twitter: @GreatBooksDude

Website: http://goetzeducation.wordpress.com/our-mission/

Book: The Bubble Boys: How Mistaken Educational Ideals and Practices are Causing a Warped Social Fabric

Last week’s top ten was about great war stories.  Here I will one-up that list–if at all possible–with great histories.  History is a large category with many sub-fields.  Usually the classic histories cover a range and scope of life that eliminates the need to approach them by subcategory.  They cover politics, religion, war, money, education, and marriage and family life.  The ones that don’t cover that range are not classic, so that settles that.

10) Sallust, Catiline’s War



9) Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome




8) Sallust, The Jugurthine War

This short classic details the usurpation of Numidia by Jugurtha, a relative of the reigning princes who was granted a small share of power and who wanted a much larger one, after the fall of Carthage.  Jugurtha in many ways parallels a much later usurper, namely Hitler, in his approach to power and the method by which he seizes control of Numidia.  He claims that he has but one demand, to take a small bit of land from another, and that if that is gratified he can ensure peace.  Then he surreptitiously goes and builds up more force, meanwhile countering messengers sent to and from Rome about him by sending his own envoys to ensure that he really is after peace and is doing nothing wrong.  Then he seizes more.  More of the same.  It is not hard to imagine Winston Churchill during his Wilderness years sitting near his radio, listening to an account of the world, reading The Jugurthine War, and seeing that what Chamberlain and Baldwin were trying to deal with was no ordinary monster.  I certainly made the connection, and so did:


7) Ammianus Marcellinus, Later History of Rome (354-378 AD)

Overtaxed provinces, religious schism, and a massive and corrupt imperial bureaucracy had made the once flourishing Roman Empire into a tottering dynasty.  Eunuchs determine who shall live and who shall die by false charge and show trial.  Its most hopeful monarch, Julian the Apostate, dies young.  Wars in the East against the Parthians are unsuccessful; civil wars recur frequently.  Over a 24-year period just prior to the reign of Theodosius, the last great emperor, Ammianus Marcellinus gives us a picture of the obvious impending doom of this once mighty superpower.


6) Julius Caesar, The Gallic War

Caesar marches into Gaul to suppress revolts, successfully subdues one tribe after another, but is forced by a German invasion of the province to cross the Rhine.  He recounts how his engineers constructed a bridge, the army marched over it, did its job, marched back, and destroyed the bridge so the Germans couldn’t use it themselves.  He tells of his invasion of Britain, its initial failure, and ultimately his success in subduing the southern portion of the island, despite having his fleet wrecked by storms.  Gaul revolts again and on his return he has to chase and conquer the great chief Vercengetorix.  With direct, lucid prose, Caesar’s account is a page-turner that you MUST read.



5) Herodotus, The Histories




4) Plutarch, Parallel Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans

This collection of biographical essays compares great Greek political and military leaders to similar Roman figures, in an attempt, so we think, to justify the greatness of the Greeks in the face of an increasingly Romanized world.  Plutarch’s research is considerable, and it is clear that he drew on every major historian before him, especially Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Livy, Sallust, and Polybius.  While the effect of its argument is completely lost to the modern era, there is no doubt that the work serves a clear informative purpose, and the 48 or so lives it contains provide any reader with an extensive background in human nature, war and peace, politics, oratory, and other high-minded ideas.



3) Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

Athens and Sparta erupt into conflict over an increasing Athenian hegemony in the Greek world in the aftermath of the Persian Wars.  Within three years the great Athenian statesman Pericles dies of plague, and the Athenian democracy falls into the hands of scheming demagogues, who make disastrous mistakes in their conduct of the war.  A lasting peace treaty is signed ten years in; it quickly gives way to more conflict.  The Athenians invade Sicily against the advice of their best general, their fleet is wrecked and they are disastrously defeated, and they eventually lose this most protracted war.  Thucydides, like Caesar, had been a general in the war he documents, but unlike Caesar he was not successful, so he had spare time on his hands to compose this journalistic account.



2) Livy, History of Rome

From its origins Rome was a force to be reckoned with; their initial population was reinforced by abducting and raping the Sabine women, and in the subsequent half-century they began their conquest of the Latin tribes surrounding the city.  Initially founded as a monarchy, corruption led to the establishment of a republic in the early 6th Century BC.  Politics was carried on by nobles until the plebeians seceded due to backbreaking economic conditions, exacerbated by time spent away from their farms on campaign; then the two worked together.  They withstood an invasion of Gauls, then subdued the remainder of Italy; as a rising world power they competed with Carthage, whose military genius Hannibal invaded them as well.  Surviving this lengthy challenge, the Romans turned their eyes to the east and relieved a distressed Greece from the shackles of Macedonian power politics.  Though only 35 of the initial 120 books (chapters) are extant, Livy’s masterpiece is a marvelous achievement.



1b) Winston Churchill, History of the English-Speaking Peoples

From prehistory to Caesar’s invasion, through the times of King Arthur (no doubt a real historical figure!), the invasions of the Angles and the Saxons, the Norman Conquest, the early monarchy, the Crusades, King John and the establishment of the Magna Carta, to the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses, the establishment of the Tudor dynasty, colonization of the New World and India, the English Civil War, Restoration, the Glorious Revolution, the French and Indian War (Seven Years War), the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the rise of American power, the Civil War, and ultimately the Boer War and the establishment of democracy in Australia, this book provides the complete story of England’s dominance as a world power, as told by its most dynamic modern figure.  Churchill’s prose, as we all know, carries an air of conviction and triumph.  More intriguing is his background as the son of an American heiress and a British noble, thus giving him the ability to write with a dispassionate eye an account of the American Civil War which is second-to-none.

What is not so clear is why, after starting the book in 1936, it took him until the mid-1950s to finish it.  What else of importance could he have possibly been doing????


http://thisboysmind.wordpress.com/2012/06/23/lessons-from-winston-churchills-a-history-of-the-english-speaking-peoples-vol-1/ (though I substantially disagree with the claim that history is merely a “fascinating read”, because what history does is it provides pictures of human nature, which acts the same under similar conditions, even if the specific circumstances have changed)

1a) Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

My all-time favorite book, this tome (or two tomes, as it may be) carries us from the height of the Roman Empire in 180 AD through the change of its capital to Constantinople, the repeated sacks of Rome in the 400s, the always-tottering Byzantine Empire, and the rediscovery of the classical past in the Renaissance, despite the continuing assault on the ruins of the city.  This is the most complete book ever written: it covers the lives of all the Emperors, many of their wives and families, their major generals, and attempted usurpers; wars on the Parthian border, in North Africa, in the Germanic and Eastern European barbaric areas, in England, and civil wars; church history, including the history of nearly a dozen major heresies and the synods which met to resolve theological disputes; architectural history and the layout of cities; literary history, especially the decline of poetry and historical work; the rise of Islam; and legal history, especially as it pertains to the Justinian Code.  Gibbon’s majestic prose is awe-inspiring, though his use of the rhetorical keyword “insensibly” is at times overdone.  Heavily footnoted, too, the footnotes often include Gibbon’s own inserted judgments.  A MUST-READ and easily the greatest work ever written, by the smartest man who ever lived.  Next to me.  Hahahaha.