Category: 2014

American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic by Joseph J. Ellis

American Creation is an excellent summary of what Ellis calls “the Founding Era”, defined as the 28 years between the start of the War for Independence in 1775 and the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

The author’s method is to focus on six key periods or events: the 15 months between the violence at Lexington and Concord and the signing of the Declaration of Independence; the Continental Army’s winter at Valley Forge, “a pivotal moment” when George Washington realized he could not win the war by winning full-scale battles with the British; the political battle between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists to ratify the Constitution; the approval of the Treaty of New York in 1791 between the United States and the Creek Nation; the beginning of party politics with the creation of the original Republican Party by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, mainly in response to Alexander Hamilton’s proposed Bank of the United States; and finally the Louisiana Purchase, when President Jefferson doubled the size of the United States but set the stage for the Civil War by ignoring the issue of slavery’s expansion to the new territory.

Being relatively ignorant about the history of this period, it was especially surprising to read about Thomas Jefferson’s checkered career and the creation of the first Republican Party, which later became the Democratic-Republican Party and eventually split into two parties, the Democrats and the Whigs (it’s ironic that the current Republican Party is known as the Grand Old Party, even though the Democratic Party is 30 years older). Jefferson and his follower Madison engaged in all kinds of bad behavior premised on the bizarre idea that people like Washington and John Adams wanted to restore monarchy to America.

The other especially surprising story is the attempt by members of Washington’s administration to create a policy that would protect the interests of the Indians east of the Mississippi. The Creek Nation occupied much of the American South and was lead by Alexander McGillivray, an expert negotiator who was only one-quarter Indian. McGillivray eventually agreed to the Treaty of New York, which reserved a large part of the South for the Indians and included the promise that Federal troops would stop any further settlement in the area by American colonists. As with most treaties between the United States and the Indians, the agreement was immediately broken by the Federal government, mostly because there weren’t enough Federal troops to enforce it.   

One of Ellis’s principal conclusions is that the struggle over the balance of power between the central government and the states was built into the Constitution from the beginning and has defined much of American history, even to the present day. My conclusion is that we’ve been lucky to do as well as we have, given the political and economic conflicts that have existed since the Founding Era and will apparently never be resolved.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese Falcon was published in 1929, twelve years before Humphrey Bogart played Sam Spade. In the book, Spade and Brigid O’Shaughnessy have sex, Spade has blond hair and Casper Gutman (the fat man) has a daughter. Other than that, the book and movie are quite similar. The movie even borrows a lot of dialogue from the book, which is a good thing, because Hammett’s dialogue is excellent.

Spade spends most of the novel wandering around San Francisco trying to figure things out. Brigid O’Shaughnessy shares as little information as possible, but since they do spend one night together, it makes more sense in the book than the movie when Spade talks about them being in love. Although she still has to take the fall, of course.

Perception: A Representative Theory by Frank Jackson

Frank Jackson is a well-known philosopher from Australia. Perception, first published in 1977, is an argument for a Representative theory of visual perception similar to John Locke’s. Jackson sums up the book in the last paragraph:

The first four chapters present my case for a Sense-datum theory of perception. Chapter 5 gives the reason for holding that all sense-data are mental. This forces a choice between Idealism and Representationalism. In chapter 6, I argue that there is no good reason for not choosing Representationalism. And, finally, in [the last] chapter, I have, first, attempted to justify my taking the perception of things as basic throughout; and, secondly, I have tried to make more precise … the particular kind of Representationalism that should be chosen.

The Sense-Data theory of perception has had a long history in philosophy. Its principal tenet is that we never perceive physical objects directly. Instead, what we immediately perceive are mental objects called “sense-data”. Thus, when I see the wall in front of me, I immediately perceive a mind-dependent blue expanse, a sense-datum (or set of sense-data), not the wall itself. In Jackson’s words, a visual sense-datum is “something seen, but not in virtue of [seeing] anything else”. Physical objects, on the other hand, are seen, but always by virtue of seeing something else, namely, sense-data. Furthermore, there is a kind of causal relationship between physical objects and the sense-data that “belong to” those objects. That’s why sense-data are said to “represent” the external world.

I’ve read that Jackson no longer endorses the theory he presents here, but Perception still provides a good account of one version of the Sense-Data theory. Professor Jackson makes many interesting distinctions and responds to a number of criticisms. One criticism he anticipates is that he is spending too much time analyzing the language of perception (Chapter 2, for example, is called “Three Uses of ‘Looks'”). He responds that his analysis of language isn’t meant to show whether sense-data actually exist. Instead, it’s meant to help us decide whether believing in the existence of sense-data (accepting the theory) is a reasonable thing to do and how the theory should be stated.

I read Perception because I’ve been thinking about the topic a lot lately and think the Sense-Data theory is probably the best one (even though it’s probably considered a bit old-fashioned now; for one thing, philosophers talk about “qualia” these days instead of sense-data). It’s common for philosophers to think of the mind as software running on the hardware of the brain. But if we’re going to think of our minds/brains as computers running programs, it makes sense to think of the input to these computers as data. Just as a computer program processes data and not the real stuff in the world, we process data as well. In our case, colors, sounds, smells, and so on, are different kinds of data. It just so happens that the data we process isn’t made up of numbers or ASCII characters (or electronic on/off settings); our perceptual data is made up of red or blue expanses, soft or loud noises and pleasant or unpleasant aromas. We don’t perceive the world “directly”, because that can’t be done. We perceive sense-data that represent the world; in similar fashion, computers process electronic values that represent the world too.

The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H. W. Brands

Ulysses S. Grant has been called “the most underrated American in history”. But he wasn’t underrated by his contemporaries. His achievements during the Civil War made him a national hero. He was elected President twice and probably would have been elected a third time if he’d chosen to run. He was celebrated around the world as the greatest living American. His death was mourned throughout the nation, even in the South. Eulogists compared him to Washington and Lincoln.

Yet he is mostly known today (if he is known at all) as a drunk, a relatively competent general, a terrible President and the occupant of Grant’s Tomb. It isn’t clear why his historical reputation suffered. One theory is that his enemies were better writers than his supporters.

In recent years, however, Grant’s reputation has improved, partly as the result of two biographies: Grant, by Jean Edward Smith, and this book, The Man Who Saved the Union, by H. W. Brands. It’s hard to know how accurate any biography is, but Brands’ book suggests that Grant was a true American hero. Aside from Lincoln, he was the person most responsible for winning the Civil War. As President, he was the person most responsible for unifying the North and South. 

The strongest impression I got from reading The Man Who Saved the Union, especially from reading Grant’s own words (which Brands frequently quotes), is that Grant was an extremely decent and sensible man. He seems to have always chosen the honorable course over the expedient one, for example, by using the power of the federal government to protect the rights of the freed slaves, over violent opposition in the South, and by seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict with the American Indians in the West. 

As you would expect, Brands’ book loses some momentum when it gets to Grant’s post-war career. Still, it’s a wonderful, highly-readable biography of someone who was beloved in his own time and deserves to be appreciated in ours.

Giordano Bruno: Philosopher / Heretic by Ingrid D. Rowland

Giordano Bruno was a 16th century Italian priest and free-thinker. At the age of 28, he left the monastery where he’d lived for 11 years because he was about to be indicted for questioning the divinity of Jesus and owning the banned writings of Erasmus. He then wandered around Europe for 25 years, studying, writing, teaching and trailing controversy wherever he went.

Bruno had a lot of radical opinions. He is best known today for his belief that the Sun is merely one among an infinite number of stars, all of which are circled by their own inhabited planets. He reasoned that God wouldn’t have created anything less than an infinite universe full of other worlds and people. He also believed that everyone, sinners or not, would eventually receive God’s grace (God’s free and unmerited favor).

In 1592, although it’s unclear why, he returned to Italy. He must have thought the Inquisition would no longer be interested in him. Unfortunately, he soon got into trouble with a local dignitary, who had Bruno arrested as a blasphemer and a heretic. The religious authorities in Venice imprisoned and investigated him for a year before transferring him to Rome, where he was imprisoned and interrogated for another seven years.

Bruno cooperated with the Inquisition to some extent, but questioned the Inquisition’s authority and ultimately refused to recant all his beliefs. He was burned at the stake in 1600. Almost three centuries later, over the objections of the Vatican, the city government erected an impressive statue of Bruno in the square where he was executed. 

Bruno, being the person he was and living the life he did, deserves a better biography than this. The author’s descriptions of Bruno’s life and thought are clear enough, but she goes off on tangents way too often. As soon as you think you’re finally going to learn more about Bruno, you get observations on architecture, church history or the life of someone Bruno met in his travels.

Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist by Walter Kaufmann

Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche is the book that got Anglo-American philosophers to take Nietzsche seriously after World War II. It was originally published in 1950 and has been selling ever since. Some observers think Kaufmann may have been a bit too easy on Nietzsche, but there is no doubt that Kaufmann’s book is a classic and Nietzsche was a great philosopher whose works justify serious consideration.

Nietzsche viewed the “will to power” as humanity’s basic motivating force, but didn’t worship violence. Despite what’s commonly believed, Nietzsche wasn’t a proto-Nazi or an anti-Semite. Neither was he a political liberal. It’s best to view him as a kind of aristocrat, in the way that Aristotle was an aristocrat when he wrote n favor of the “great-souled man” (“a person is thought to be great-souled if he claims much and deserves much”).

According to Nietzsche, there is a natural aristocracy of individuals who can control their passions and channel their will to power into the accomplishment of great things. In Nietzsche’s view, Caesar and Napoleon were natural aristocrats, but so were Socrates, Jesus, Michaelangelo, Spinoza, Goethe and Wagner:

Quite generally, Nietzsche distinguishes between (a) men whom he admires, (b) the ideas for which they stand, and (c) their followers. Only in terms of some such categories can one understand Nietzsche’s complex attitude toward Jesus, Christianity and Christendom [i.e. he admired the first, criticized the second and hated the third.]

Similarly, Nietzsche admired Schopenhauer; respected but criticized Schopenhauer’s philosophy; and despised his followers. Nietzsche admired Wagner and felt drawn to much of his music, but he abominated the ostentatiously Christian nationalists and anti-Semites who congregated in Bayreuth…

Nietzsche’s fight against Socrates thus takes two forms: denunciations of his epigoni [his disciples] and respectful criticisms of his doctrines… [Socrates] is the very embodiment of Nietzsche’s highest ideal: the passionate man who can control his passions [398-399].

By all accounts, Nietzsche was a kind and considerate person despite his critical nature. He even argued that the strong should be considerate of the weak (the bulk of humanity). I’d recommend Kaufmann’s book as a helpful and enjoyable account of Nietzsche’s philosophy, but Kaufmann spends a lot of time responding to old, misleading descriptions of Nietzsche’s positions. That made sense 60 years ago, but it makes Nietzsche (the book, not the philosopher), feel somewhat dated now.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Zealot might be disturbing for Christian readers. Its author was born into a Muslim family in Iran. After his family emigrated to the United States, he became a Christian for a while. After closely studying the origins of Christianity, however, he became “a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than [he] ever was of Jesus Christ”.

As Aslan tells the story, Jesus was born in the humble village of Nazareth, not in a manger in Bethlehem (despite what the Bible says, the Romans never conducted a census that forced everyone to stop work and travel to their birthplace). Jesus was illiterate, worked as a laborer and was probably married (almost all young Jewish men got married in those days). When he was roughly 34 years old, he left Nazareth and began preaching a politically-charged message to his fellow Jews.

At the time, there were lots of angry but hopeful Jews in Palestine. They were anticipating the arrival of a messiah, someone who would establish the Kingdom of God on earth and get rid of the Romans. Some claimed to be the messiah. Others were thought to be the messiah by their followers. Some, including Jesus, were said to have performed exorcisms or miracles. What the various preachers, dissidents, rabble rousers and zealots had in common was their nationalistic desire to kick the Romans out of Palestine and restore Israel to its former glory. 

None of these supposed messiahs claimed to be divine, however. The Jews, of course, were strictly monotheistic. It was enough that the messiah do God’s work by overthrowing the Roman oppressors. Many also hoped for economic reforms, like lower taxes. Jesus, in particular, apparently had a very low opinion of the wealthy priests and merchants who cooperated with the Romans.

Crucifixion was a common punishment for Rome’s enemies, so it was no surprise that Jesus was found guilty of sedition after a few years and executed. Being crucified, however, showed that Jesus wasn’t the messiah after all. The Romans were clearly still in power. Jesus had failed to institute the Kingdom of God. Aslan suggests that some of Jesus’s followers wanted to explain away his apparent failure. They spread the idea that Jesus rose from the dead and would one day return to finish his work. That’s when the Romans would finally be overthrown.

We know that the various books of the New Testament were written decades after Jesus’s crucifixion. We also know that almost all of it was written by men who never met Jesus, never heard him speak and never saw him perform any miracles. Aslan points out lots of inconsistencies and omissions in the New Testament and plausibly argues that many stories told about Jesus were designed to satisfy political and theological agendas. For example, claiming that Jesus was born in Bethlehem was a way to make his birthplace consistent with earlier prophecies about the messiah.

What I found especially interesting in Zealot was Aslan’s discussion of the apostle Paul, who wasn’t one of the original twelve apostles. He was a Jew and a Roman citizen who is said to have encountered an otherworldly Jesus on the road to Damascus a few years after Jesus’s crucifixion.

Whether or not Paul had a vision while traveling to Damascus, he doesn’t seem to have written anything saying that he did (the road to Damascus story is now attributed to Luke, who was apparently one of Paul’s disciples). But, according to Aslan, Paul was mainly responsible for the birth of Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism.

Jesus, of course, was hardly a Christian himself. For example, Aslan says there is no evidence that Jesus ever referred to himself as the “Son of God”. That was a title reserved for the past kings of Israel, like David. It was Paul who promoted the story that Jesus was divine and began referring to Jesus as “Jesus Christ”. Paul also founded churches in other parts of the Roman empire. In fact, more than half of the New Testament was either written by Paul or is about Paul.

Paul’s distinctive views were rejected by the other apostles (the ones who had known Jesus and were still alive), including James the Just, the younger brother of Jesus and the leading figure among the apostles after Jesus’s death. Since Paul couldn’t convince the other Jews that Jesus was divine, he concentrated on convincing the gentiles, some of whom were receptive to his relatively monotheistic message.

Of course, the historical record is extremely spotty with regard to Jesus. Some scholars no doubt disagree with Aslan’s interpretation of the evidence. A Christian, being convinced that Jesus was a unique individual who actually did perform miracles, actually was resurrected and actually was (and is) God’s son, might say it’s pointless to try to understand Jesus from an historical perspective.

In addition, Aslan never really explains why he holds Jesus of Nazareth in such high regard (even if Jesus was anti-Rome and a champion of the poor). Aslan doesn’t even emphasize Jesus’s role as a moral teacher, arguing that the idea of turning the other cheek, for example, didn’t apply to people in general – it only applied to one’s Jewish enemies (and certainly not to Romans, for whom the sword was more appropriate). But I found Aslan’s account extremely interesting and very plausible. Here is part of his concluding summary:

Christianity after the destruction of Jerusalem [by the Romans in 70 C.E.] was almost exclusively a gentile religion; it needed a gentile theology. And that is precisely what Paul provided. The choice between James’s vision of a Jewish religion anchored in the Law of Moses and derived from a Jewish nationalist who fought against Rome, and Paul’s vision of a Roman religion that divorced itself from Jewish provincialism and require nothing for salvation save belief in Christ, was not a difficult one for the second and third generations of Jesus’s followers…

Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history.