Course Last Night!

I still have gotten no return off of this blog whatsoever–not a single buyer of any of the three books I’ve posted links to, and not a single student–but regardless of that I will continue to post as it gives me something to do when not reading and writing and teaching.  Note that your failure to buy in is a reflection on you, not on me.  And yes, you should feel bad about it, because our government–which you elect without anywhere near adequate knowledge to do so–obviously does not work, our economy–in which you are participants–is not well, and our school system is a flat piece of shit.  That is perhaps much too kind to them, but I’ll leave the understatement.  You wish to be ignorant–therefore you have no right to complain when your taxes go up, crimes are not prevented or solved, you see conflict in the world that you are uncomfortable with, your government enacts policies that you do not wish for and that do not work, your income is not high enough, and your kids are stupid.  Wake up, people.  Wake the fuck up.

My four-week winter course on political, economic, and legal ideas from 1830-1930 began last night with Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government.  It went really well–I used the Socratic method and was able to keep the one student who tends to answer questions that were not asked in line.  No doubt this was the right method to choose for the particular work in question, and there is a lot to ask questions about both philosophically and in terms of the book’s historical background.

I asked one of my students after by text message if he had ever had anyone go through ideas like that.  This is a college student, he’s now 21, so he’s been through quite a bit of schooling.  His answer was: “No, that was really good!  Very helpful in understanding what Calhoun was saying.”

Next week, for Mill’s Utilitarianism, I will go a different route, because that’s what the work in question requires.  I’ll add more info as we approach that, and also a review of Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government in the coming days.

Review of The Rise of the Confederate Government

Author: Jefferson Davis (President of the Confederacy)

Publisher: Barnes and Noble Library of Essential Reading, 2010 (original 1881)

Every now and again I come across a hidden gem, a book that is not on the major lists of classic works but that covers such a range of ideas and aspects of human existence that it winds up ranking on my list of top fifty reads in my life.  This is one of those cases, and I owe Barnes and Noble a huge thank you for their publication of this work, the first half of Davis’ memoirs.  I will warn that it is a tome, at 480 pages of text plus another 180 of appendices and at least ten of endnotes, but it is well worth the time and effort to sort through it.

The Civil War was about business interests, and any discussion of slavery only clouds the issue–let’s start with that.  Jefferson Davis’ memoir provides a clear statement of the reasons behind the secession of the eleven “sovereign” states which formed the Confederate States of America in 1861 (in theory thirteen states had Confederate armies, but two were silenced by disarmament enforced by Union troops).  I did not know many of the details about the Southern position before reading this book, as they have been ignored or “discredited” (a word that is difficult to use here but that some who do not know what it means use to state that they disagree with its premises and facts), but now I must say that not only am I far more knowledgeable and less prone to making assumptions, I believe I am a “Confederate sympathizer” to a certain degree.

Davis’ biggest concern is the abuse of the legislative and executive powers of the United States by sectional interests.  As he states early on, the South was penalized multiple times by tariffs which a) protected Northern industry and b) were used to make improvements in the North that Southern congressmen would not ask to be made in their territories.  This was the basis of corruption and dishonesty, and was coupled with a refusal to enforce fugitive slave laws and a failure to honor property rights in neutral territories prior to their having become States; and when an entirely sectional government was elected in 1860, Southerners were forced to deliberate upon whether the “general government” as an “agent” instituted for a purpose could still do what the South had entered into agreement for its establishment to do.

Their answer was, of course, that it could not do this, and they seceded.  Davis justifies this by reference to the language of the Constitution, and shows how theories against the right of secession are based on misconstructions of that brilliant document; all of his logic is very plain, and adds up quite clearly.  (Ultimately the debate really goes back to whether government fits Hobbes’ conception–where men give up their rights to the government in exchange for protection of their lives but something goes wrong and they cannot get those rights back and are forced to concede more and more–or Locke’s conception, where government is still the result of a social contract but the people reserve the right to alter or abolish it if it no longer works for them.)  But the seceding states retained the hope for peace, and did not attempt to build their armies despite their unpreparedness for any sort of major conflict; instead they sent commissioners to the United States government in the hopes of amicably settling certain potential sources of disagreement, such as the removal of United States troops from Fort Sumter in South Carolina (where they were no longer wanted and needed as they were on the territory of a foreign nation), which the Union government kept waiting with delays before finally dismissing them ignominiously and sending reinforcements to the garrison at Fort Sumter.  Davis exposes the hypocrisy of the political leaders of the Republican party of the time and their broad construction of the language of the Constitution to the point where they rendered the document nearly meaningless.  The full implications of this early abuse of the document continue to be displayed at the present, mind you.

Davis describes the organization of the Confederate government, the initiation of the Civil War and its early battles, some military strategies pursued by his generals, the suppression of the border states by Union armies (which truly disgusts me), the finances of the Confederacy and its manufacture of arms after the war had already started in a game of catch-up; he discusses some of the conflicts that arose between himself and governors of the respective states, and some of the more reckless behavior of his generals in disobeying his orders that led to reverses in the fate of the Confederacy.

The book is ridiculously complete in its scope, covering all aspects of both the theoretical and the practical that bear relevance to its subject matter, and compares favorably with many of the memoirs I have read by participants in world affairs–notably Trotsky’s and Roosevelt’s.  It should be considered by every student of U.S. History and I would urge that it be taught in schools but for the fact that there are hundreds of other books that need also to be read and only so much time in which to read them.  I certainly have set out that time, but it is to some limited degree understandable that others have not.


Review of Archimedes’ The Sand-Reckoner

I found this short piece in my own library, in the Great Books of the Western World set that I’ve had since my grandfather gave it to me as a gift for my 16th birthday–the greatest gift, by far, that I have ever been given.  I ask only with this review that you refrain from comments on my sanity–because I prefer to learn things I don’t already know, and the fact that I’m reading a mathematical treatise is reflective of unadulterated madness.  In fact I have much to say about this short treatise, far more than I do about On the Equilibrium of Planes, which I read just before it.

The Sand-Reckoner is an attempt by Archimedes to refute those who said that if the whole universe was made of sand, the grains of sand involved could not be counted–they’d be infinite.  Given the information available to him, his proof is fascinating–he calculates the proportions of distances between the Earth, the sun, and the moon, hypothesizes orbits, and combines the geometrical astronomy with a heavy dose of number theory (especially dealing with powers of 10) and an assumption of the number of grains of sand you can hold in your hand to show that if all the space in the orbit was filled, the grains of sand would be calculable.  It is a work of true genius, one that has no modern parallel that I can think of.

The problem, however, should be obvious to the modern reader: to assume that the number of grains of sand contained in the universe is finite, we have to assume that the space contained in the universe is finite.  In Archimedes’ day this was generally (though not universally) assumed to be the case.  Today, however, we assume that the universe extends infinitely and that there is no calculable boundary at which space ends.  Thus the proof is discredited when the assumption on which it rests is conceived of as being inaccurate.

To what extent might this be true of our own scientific theories?  How many of us recognize what lies on assumption and what lies on fact?  How many know enough to make this recognition?  Consider the question as you read the results of studies reported in the news, listen to your doctor’s advice, and as your kids go through high school and college science courses.  You may be surprised at what you find.

Review of Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women

Publisher: Dodo Press, 76 pages (no date of publication)

This edition reprints the poem in Chaucer’s original English, without editing, which is fascinating. It’s nearly a different language altogether, though it is not difficult to figure out if you really know our current version. Most of the stories are taken from Ovid (especially Metamorphoses) and Livy’s History of Rome, so if you’ve read those two this is purely for pleasure and possibly reinforcement. The story of Antony and Cleopatra may be taken from Plutarch, and the legend of Dido is clearly and explicitly taken from Virgil’s Aeneid. Chaucer is no plagiarist, as he gives credit to each author from whom he takes his stories.

Shakespeare clearly made reference to this book and adapted several of the stories from it (and from Ovid, Livy, and Plutarch) in his poem The Rape of Lucrece and several of his plays, notably Antony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus (where he recreates the legend of Philomela), and in several of his plays he refers to the legend of Pyramus and Thisbe. The Rape of Lucrece is among his strongest works, so its obligation to Chaucer is extremely notable.

Perhaps most intriguing to me about this book is that it confirms one of the major points I made in my Essays on the Classics! series in the first volume: namely that in the classics, despite modern academics’ retarded insistence, without reference to fact, that they are biased against women, many of the classics in fact treat women better than men. This is true especially where the classics disparage man as an unthinking and arrogant beast, but it is also true in one like this, where Chaucer sets out explicitly to sponsor the cause of women. Other places where this can be seen are The Odyssey and Dante’s Divine Comedy, as well as Virgil’s Aeneid.

My favorite of Chaucer’s works remains Troilus and Criseyde, which I think is one of the absolute greatest poems ever written and is unfortunately ignored, especially among high schools where they insist on teaching The Canterbury Tales (which is inferior). But this is a good piece in Chaucer’s canon, even if it doesn’t quite compare.

Review of William Penn’s Fruits of Solitude

Found this book in Simi Valley Public Library’s Harvard Classics set, which I’ll be smoking through on Fridays and possibly Saturdays.  Many of the contents of that set are the same as those contained in the Great Books of the Western World set (which I own), but some of them–this one, Luther’s writings, Pliny’s letters, some autobiographies–are not common to both sets and I look forward to smoking through them.

This is truly a great book, but also very intense and some of the language can be difficult to understand fully. It’s deceptively short, but its brevity masks a deeper difficulty that is characteristic of Penn’s work. The book is complete in scope, covering every aspect of man’s existence ranging from his connection with nature to business, marriage, social dexterity, political relationships, and so on. Though explicitly religious, it is grounded in a sympathetic understanding of the limitations of human capability.

For me this provides a nice contrast with Penn’s Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe, which I really loved. The Essay was limited in scope and could only cover so much, whereas this book, due to its presentation, was able to provide so much more insight into Penn’s value system.

Official Start Date and Time for Winter Program

Good morning!  The last few weeks I’ve devoted here exclusively to reviews.  Now I want to give a projected start date and time for my Winter course on the Great Books–political theory from 1830-1930, and the ideas that inspire the Tea Party.  I am looking at December 26th at 7 pm Pacific Time.  This course is only four weeks and covers four short books, but will do wonders for your awareness of the modern political and economic scene, whatever your current knowledge level about it is.

Call or contact ASAP to secure enrollment–time is a’flyin’!


Review of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

Publisher: Encyclopedia Britannica, Great Books of the Western World, Volume 44, 1952

This is the 37th volume of the original (54-volume) Great Books of the Western World set that I have finished to date–the others being 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 29, 30, 32, 33, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 43, 47, 48, 50, 51, and 52. I have finished most of 9, 11, 19, 31, and 54 as well, and a good chunk of 28, as well as hundreds of secondary and tertiary classics both by authors in the set and authors outside of it.

I find Johnson to be vain and obnoxious–much like Boswell’s wife, evidently–but the value of this volume lies in how it filled me in on a particular time and place. While at times this particular book can bore even the most diligent and focused reader, I believe in my core that it is an honest (Boswell is a tad more honest in my opinion than Johnson) attempt to draw a picture of one of the secondary literary figures of his times. The book is long, and heavily footnoted, most of it by Boswell himself; and it contrasts itself with other biographies of Johnson written and released just after his death.

Now, why would I call Johnson a secondary figure? In his own literary club he was surrounded by Edmund Burke and Edward Gibbon, who wrote two of the four greatest books of the era; and Adam Smith, despite Johnson’s low opinion of him, completely overmatches Johnson intellectually (he wrote the other two). To me it seems clear that Johnson knew his own shortcomings and felt compelled to compensate for them by denigrating such giants as Swift, Hume, and Smith–thinkers who, to anyone who has read enough of the Western canon, are clearly and unambiguously gigantic intellects writing from considered and honest opinions. It seems to me as though Johnson led his own subculture, but that because he was only a secondary figure he never really became mainstream, though his subculture and the mainstream overlapped in places.