Review: Stones of Venice

Review: Stones of Venice

The Stones of VeniceThe Stones of Venice by John Ruskin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Many people, capable of quickly sympathizing with any excellence, when once pointed out to them, easily deceive themselves into the supposition that they are judges of art.

I recently went on a short trip to Venice, for which I chose an abridged version of this work to accompany me. Ruskin is an eccentric guide, to say the least. To call him ‘opinionated’ is to risk absurd understatement. For Ruskin uses his survey of Venetian architecture, not merely to instruct, but as evidence for his grand theses of art and society. Few writers could turn descriptions of vaults, capitals, and statues into impassioned social criticism; but Ruskin was no ordinary man.

Ruskin’s primary contention is that gothic art was in every way superior to that of the Renaissance, and this was so because gothic art embodied positive social virtues. The workmen had considerable creative freedom, and did not simply execute the instructions of the master architect; not just nobles and popes, but ordinary citizens and guilds contributed to building projects; and the religious architecture was not done in a special style, but was an elaboration of the normal civic architecture of the town. In short, gothic art was communal, while the art and architecture of the Renaissance and later was individualistic, and suffered accordingly.

It is difficult to even critically engage with this thesis, since it rests on Ruskin’s unconvincing conviction that aesthetic and ethical virtues spring from the same root. Like Tolstoy and Orwell, Ruskin was a man possessed of both keen artistic sensitivity and a burning moral conscience; and like those two Ruskin struggled to reconcile these proclivities. To an extent this issue is troubling for us all. We are disturbed to find that our favorite singer beat his wife, or that our favorite writer is a white supremacist. Can we enjoy the art of such disreputable people? Many opt to boycott the works of artists they deem unacceptable. But Ruskin went further, and asserted that truly immoral people cannot make fine art. In this, Ruskin becomes a proper Platonist, equating beauty and goodness—and throwing truth into the bargain as well—thus cutting the uncomfortable gordian knot.

This position has the intellectual convenience of uniting all the goods on one side. This is very appealing for the social reformer. But this comes with the inconvenience of having to argue palpable absurdities. Ruskin is forced, for example, to make statements such as: “It is very possible that the reader may at first like fig. 14 best. I shall endeavor, in the next chapter, to show why he should not”—vainly trying to argue somebody out of an aesthetic preference. Contrariwise, when great art is made by figures whom history has shown to be immoral, Ruskin must commit the opposite absurdity—opposing his own aesthetic sense to documented fact:

I do not believe, of the majority of the leading Venetians of this period whose portraits have come down to us, that they were deliberately and everlastingly hypocrites. I see no hypocrisy in their countenances. Much capacity of it, much subtlety, much natural and acquired reserve; but no meanness. On the contrary, infinite grandeur, repose, courage, and the peculiar unity and tranquility of expression which come of sinciety or wholeness of heart, and which it would take much demonstration to believe could be any possibility be seen on the countenance of an insincere man.

Few people will be converted to this way of thinking, which submits reality to the whims of Ruskin’s moral and artistic senses. It is, however, refreshing to see a man so passionately convinced of the social importance of art. Ruskin scours to the city of Venice—sketchbook and notepad in one hand, step ladder under the other arm—making detailed studies of statues, capitals, friezes, cornices, and whatever other stone monuments he could find. The original edition of this book includes descriptions of eighty churches. Even in my heavily abridged edition, Ruskin goes through every capital of the Ducal Palace, comparing the representations of the virtues to Giotto’s and to Spenser’s—a tedious yet extraordinary feat. Idle fancy could hardly spur such devotion. He operated with the zeal of a reformer and the conviction of a crusader—ready to show all the world that these stones held the key to social welfare.

Personally I wish there were more people like Ruskin in the world, even if they can be insufferable at times. He wanted to live in a beautiful world, and he wanted that beauty to both reflect and encourage the health of its society. We may be inclined to laugh at Ruskin’s arguments; yet we are willing to pay thousands of dollars to go to these beautiful places and see them for ourselves—which, like Venice, consequently become hollowed out shells of their former selves from the influx of tourism—without stopping to wonder why we don’t spare ourselves the trouble and make our own cities beautiful. While I suspect the rise of urban ugliness is far more complex than Ruskin is apt to think, I agree with him in seeing a moral and social dimension to this aesthetic problem.

In any case, it is a pleasure to read Ruskin if only for his rococo prose, whose sentences twist, curl, and spiral into little infinities. One can see why Proust was a fan (and, indeed, his Narrator’s visit to Venice owes much to the Victorian critic). Ruskin was true to his principles, and strove to unite literary elegance, moral fervor, and insightful argument into every one of his paragraphs—and most of the time he achieves at least two out of three, which is not bad at all. Even if you disagree with Ruskin from first to last, it is scarcely possible to dive in his book and come out the other side without a few of his cobwebs sticking to your coat.

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Review: Lives of the Artists

Review: Lives of the Artists

Lives of the ArtistsLives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An artist lives and acquires fame through his works; but with the passing of time, which consumes everything, these works—the first, then the second, and the third—fade away.

After Plutarch’s Lives, Vasari’s Lives of the Artists is likely the most iconic collection of biographies of famous men. He published two editions of the book, the first in 1550, the second in 1568; and both found success in Vasari’s lifetime and have continued to sell well ever since. In life Vasari was a typical Renaissance man, achieving fame for his paintings (he decorated the Palazzo Vecchio) and his architecture (he was responsible for the loggia of the Uffizi), in addition to his work as a biographer. Granted, his paintings are not highly regarded nowadays (though many are pleasing enough to my eyes); but this posthumous verdict did not prevent him from making a fine living. And when you write the first book of art history in the history of art, the rest hardly matters.

The edition I own is highly abridged, as are nearly all popular versions, since the original contains dozens upon dozens of painters, sculptors, and architects—most of whom the casual reader does not know of or care for. This explains why most of the Lives are so short. Indeed, fans of any particular Renaissance artist are liable to be disappointed by Vasari’s treatment. He runs through Sandro Botticelli in all of ten pages, for example, barely pausing to mention the Birth of Venus. Indeed, many of these biographies are hardly biographies at all, just extended catalogues of works. This is certainly useful for the art historian (though Vasari made many mistakes) but it does not make for electrifying reading.

The modern psychoanalyzing mode of artistic biographies was, of course, entirely alien to Vasari, and he seems to regard the artist’s personality as a source of gossip but not of insight. This does not prevent him from including many good stories. Like Plutarch himself, Vasari is rich in anecdote—and, as in Plutarch, half of them are probably false. Fact or fiction, a good story is preferable to a dry fact, and this is when Vasari’s Lives really come alive. We hear of Cimabue agreeing to take on Giotto as a pupil, after seeing the young boy scratching on a stone; or of Paolo Uccello staying up long nights to work on problems of perspective. Whether these stories help us to understand the paintings is doubtful; but they do help to bring alive this amazing time in history.

Vasari begins the book with a sketch of the history of art as he understood it. His opinion is not a masterpiece of subtlety. In essence, the Greeks and Romans understood that art begins by copying nature, and so produced excellent works; then art fell into barbarism (Vasari coined the term “gothic” to describe medieval art) in which the ancient knowledge was lost and artists had no knowledge of proper technique; finally the painter Giotto came and revived the arts, inaugurating a process that culminated in the works of Michelangelo. I must say that this view, though little more than naked prejudice, is at least refreshing in Vasari’s conviction that art was ascending and culminating in his own epoch. (Most of us are disposed to think it is declining.) It is striking that Michelangelo’s historic importance was understood even during his own lifetime. This was not an age of poor Van Goghs working in lonely shacks. The great artists were recognized and rewarded when they lived; and younger artists were seen to have surpassed their masters—novel concepts in our romantic age.

The Life of Michelangelo, whom Vasari knew and worshipped, is by far the longest and forms the core of this collection. Indeed, all the other lives can be seen as mere leadup to the great Florentine, who fulfils all the promise of former ages. Vasari here turns from chronicler to hagiographer, praising Michelangelo with every breath. You might even say that Vasari turns into quite the Boswell, including various bits of Michelangelo’s conversation, and also several letters written to him by the great artist, as if to prove that Michelangelo really was his friend. All this makes for good reading, even if the worshipful tone is grating. The second longest Life in my collection is that of another Florentine (Vasari was a fierce patriot of his home city), Filippo Brunelleschi. This life is perhaps even better than that of Michelangelo, as Vasari charts the squabbles and drama behind the scenes of Brunelleschi’s dome.

Vasari’s style is easygoing and almost conversational, and the pages go by quickly. He strikes me as a man full of shallow opinions but of a generous mind and a steady judgment. This book—full of errors, lacking any historical context, and greatly out of step with modern opinion—could hardly be read as a standalone volume on Renaissance painting. But every book on the subject borrows, knowingly or unknowingly, from Vasari, who has given bread to scholars and delight to readers for generations with this charming book.

I have endeavored not only to record what the artists have done but to distinguish between the good, the better, and the best, and to note with some care the methods, manners, styles, behavior, and ideas of the painters and sculptors; I have tried as well as I know how to help people who cannot find out for themselves to understand the sources and origins of various styles, and the reasons for the improvement or decline of the arts at various times and among different people.

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Review: Plutarch’s Lives

Review: Plutarch’s Lives

Parallel LivesParallel Lives by Plutarch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ease, and speed of execution, seldom produces work of any permanent value or delicacy. It is the time which is spent in laborious production for which we are repaid by the durable character of the result.

In the course of his grand theory of history, Oswald Spengler distinguishes what he sees as the fundamental difference between the ancient Greco-Roman and the contemporary Western cultures: the Greek’s ideal concept was of bounded, perfect forms, while the Western soul craves the boundless, the formless, and the infinite. It is a somewhat vague statement, I know, but I kept coming back to Spengler’s idea as I read Plutarch’s Lives.

Specifically, I kept thinking of Spengler’s idea as I mentally compared Plutarch’s conception of personality with Montaigne’s. I could not help making this comparison, you see, since it was Montaigne who led me to Plutarch. The Frenchman idolized the Greek; and the Essays are full of quotes of and references to Plutarch. Indeed, Montaigne specifically praises Plutarch for his insight into human nature:

The historians are my right ball, for they are pleasant and easy, and where man, in general, the knowledge of whom I hunt after, appears more vividly and entire than anywhere else… the variety and truth of his internal qualities, in gross and piecemeal, the diversity of means by which he is united and knit, and the accidents that threaten him. Now those that write lives, by reason they insist more upon counsels than events, more upon what sallies from within, than upon what happens from without, are the most proper for my reading; and, therefore, above all others, Plutarch is the man for me.

For my part this quote better describes Montaigne than Plutarch. Since it is exactly in this—the representation of personality—that I think Spengler’s idea most aptly applies in these two writers.

Compare the representation of a person in a classical Greek statue and in a portrait by Rembrandt, and I think you will catch my meaning. The first is all surface—shapely limbs, a well-proportioned body, a harmonious face, whose eyes nevertheless stare out serenely into vacancy, suggesting nothing internal. In Rembrandt it is exactly the reverse: the face may be ugly, the body largely hidden in shadows, yet all the energy is focused on the expression—an expression of endless suggestion, which brings to us a definite human personality.

I feel the same contrast between Plutarch and Montaigne. Plutarch’s method of characterization is statuesque. He enumerates his heroes’ virtues and qualities as if they were set in stone; and he derives all of their actions from these static characteristics. Montaigne is completely the reverse: he contradicts himself a thousand times in his book, and in the process reveals the qualities of his mind far more exquisitely than any straightforward description could accomplish. Plutarch’s heroes never change: their character is their destiny; whereas Montaigne is nothing but change. Indeed, for me it is hard to say that Plutarch’s heroes have “personality,” in the sense that I can imagine meeting them. They are no more relatable than a Greek statue.

They were certainly relatable to Plutarch himself, however, as he writes in a famous passage:

It was for the sake of others that I first undertook to write biographies, but I soon began to dwell upon and delight in them for myself, endeavoring to the best of my ability to regulate my own life, and to make it like that of those who were reflected in their history as it were in a mirror before me. By the study of their biographies, we receive each man as a guest into our minds, and we seem to understand their character as the result of personal acquaintance, because we have obtained from their acts the best and most important means of forming an opinion about them.

This quote also illustrates Plutarch’s moral purpose. For a book written by a Greek living under Roman domination, comparing the lives of Greeks and Romans, he seems to have been quite bereft of political purpose. He is, rather, a moralist. Through his biographies he hopes to determine which actions are noble, which nobler, and which noblest, an analysis he performs through his comparisons at the end of the paired lives. He writes biographies in the conviction that we naturally imitate which we see and admire; we are drawn in by the attraction we feel for noble characters, and become ennobled ourselves in the process. This is why Plutarch eschews writing strict history:

I am writing biography, not history; and often a man’s most brilliant actions prove nothing as to his true character, while some trifling incident, some casual remark or jest, will throw more light upon what manner of man he was than the bloodiest battle, the greatest array of armies, or the most important siege. Therefore, just as portrait painters pay most attention to those peculiarities of the face and eyes, in which the likeness consists, and care but little for the rest of the figure, so it is my duty to dwell especially upon those actions which reveal the workings of my heroes’ minds, and from these to construct the portraits of their respective lives, leaving their battles and their great deeds to be recorded by others.

This sounds promising enough: teaching moral lessons through depicting great personalities. My problem—aside from not being able to relate to the heroes—was that I questioned the very greatness of their actions. Of course there are many virtuous actions recorded here, worthy of praise and emulation. However, nearly all of Plutarch’s heroes are military commanders; and these pages are spattered with blood. The cutthroat world of ancient political squabbles, territorial conquests, internal strife, did not strike me as promising ground to teach virtue. Voltaire was perhaps thinking of Plutarch when he made this remark:

Not long since the trite and frivolous question was was debated in a very polite and learned company, viz., Who was the greatest man, Caesar, Alexander, Tamerlane, Cromwell, etc.? Somebody answered that Sir Isaac Newton excelled them all. The gentleman’s assertion was very just; … those politicians and conquerors (and all ages produce some) were generally so many illustrious wicked men. That man claims respect who commands over the minds of the rest of the world by force of truth, not those who enslave their fellow-creatures: he who is acquainted with the universe, not they who deface it.

Plutarch, to his credit, does give a remarkable portrait of the Newton of his time: Archimedes. But this is tucked away in his life of the Roman general, Marcellus.

For these reasons I had a great deal of difficulty in finishing this book. After every couple Lives I had to take a break; so it took me three years of on-again, off-again reading to finally get to the end. My ignorance did not help, either. Plutarch, being an ancient author, sometimes presumed a great deal more knowledge that I possessed about the relevant political history; and so I found myself frequently lost. And his style, though eloquent, is also monotonous (at least in translation), which was another challenge to my attention.

But I am glad I read Plutarch. This book is an extraordinary historical document, an invaluable (but not infallible) source of information about these ancient figures. Plutarch loved a good story and these pages are rich in anecdote—some of them so famous that it is likely you know one even if you have not read Plutarch. And though I struggled through many of the less famous figures, I was entranced by Plutarch’s biographies of the heroes I was acquainted with: Pompey, Alexander, Cicero, Brutus, and Antony. (Shakespeare followed the latter two Lives very closely in his Roman plays.) If Plutarch was good enough for Montaigne then, by Jove, he is good enough for me.

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Review: The Logic of Scientific Discovery

Review: The Logic of Scientific Discovery

The Logic of Scientific DiscoveryThe Logic of Scientific Discovery by Karl R. Popper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We do not know: we can only guess.

Karl Popper originally wrote Logik der Forchung (The Logic of Research) in 1934. This original version—published in haste to secure an academic position and escape the threat of Nazism (Popper was of Jewish descent)—was heavily condensed at the publisher’s request; and because of this, and because it remained untranslated from the German, the book did not receive the attention it deserved. This had to wait until 1959, when Popper finally released a revised and expanded English translation. Yet this condensation and subsequent expansion have left their mark on the book. Popper makes his most famous point within the first few dozen pages; and much of the rest of the book is given over to dead controversies, criticisms and rejoinders, technical appendices, and extended footnotes. It does not make for the most graceful reading experience.

This hardly matters, however, since it is here that Popper put forward what has arguably become the most famous concept in the philosophy of science: falsification.

This term is widely used; but its original justification is not, I believe, widely understood. Popper’s doctrine must be understood as a response to inductivism. Now, in 1620 Francis Bacon released his brilliant Novum Organum. Its title alludes to Aristotle’s Organon, a collection of logical treatises, mainly focusing on how to make accurate deductions. This Aristotelian method—dominated by syllogisms: deriving conclusions from given premises—dominated the study of nature for millennia, with precious little to show for it. Francis Bacon hoped to change all that with his new doctrine of induction. Instead of beginning with premises (‘All men are mortal’), and reasoning to conclusions (‘Socrates is mortal’), the investigator must begin with experiences (‘Socrates died,’ ‘Plato died,’ etc.) and then generalize a conclusion (‘All men are mortal’). This was how science was to proceed: from the specific to the general.

This seemed all fine and dandy until, in 1738, David Hume published his Treatise of Human Nature, in which he explained his infamous ‘problem of induction.’ Here is the idea. If you see one, two, three… a dozen… a thousand… a million white swans, and not a single black one, it is still illogical to conclude “All swans are white.” Even if you investigated every swan in the world but one, and they all proved white, you still could not conclude with certainty that the last one would be white. Aside from modus tollens (concluding from a negative specific to a negative general), here is no logically justifiable way to proceed from the specific to the general. To this argument, many are tempted to respond: “But we know from experience that induction works. We generalize all the time.” Yet this is to use induction to prove that induction works, which is paradoxical. Hume’s problem of induction has proven to be a stumbling block for philosophers ever since.

In the early parts of the 20th century, the doctrine of logical positivism arose in the philosophical world, particularly in the ‘Vienna Circle’. This had many proponents and many forms, but the basic idea, as explained by A.J. Ayer, is the following. The meaning of a sentence is equivalent to its verification; and verification is performed through experience. Thus the sentence “The cat is on the mat” can be verified by looking at the mat; it is a meaningful utterance. But the sentence “The world is composed of mind” cannot be verified by any experience; it is meaningless. Using this doctrine the positivists hoped to eliminate all metaphysics. Unfortunately, however, the doctrine also eliminates human knowledge, since, as Hume showed, generalizations can never be verified. No experience corresponds, for example, to the statement: “Gravitation is proportional to the product of mass and the inverse square of distance,” since this is an unlimitedly general statement, and experiences are always particular.

Karl Popper’s falsificationism is meant to solve this problem. First, it is important to note that Popper is not, like the positivists, proposing a criterion of ‘meaning’. That is to say that, for Popper, unfalsifiable statements can still be meaningful; they just do not tell us anything about the world. Indeed, he continually notes how metaphysical ideas (such as Kepler’s idea that circles are more ‘perfect’ than other shapes) have inspired and guided scientists. This is itself an important distinction because it prevents him from falling into the same paradox as the positivists. For if only the statements with empirical content have meaning, then the statement “only the statements with empirical content have meaning” is itself meaningless. Popper, for his part, regarded himself as the enemy of linguistic philosophy and considered the problem of epistemology quite distinct from language analysis.

To return to falsification, Popper’s fundamental insight is that verification and falsification are not symmetrical. While no general statement can be proved using a specific instance, a general statement can indeed be disproved with a specific instance. A thousand white swans does not prove all swans are white; but one black swan disproves it. (This is the aforementioned modus tollens.) All this may seem trivial; but as Popper realized, this changes the nature of scientific knowledge as we know it. For science, then, is far from what Bacon imagined it to be—a carefully sifted catalogue of experiences, a collection of well-founded generalizations—and is rather a collection of theories which spring up, as it were, from the imagination of the scientist in the hopes of uniting several observed phenomena under one hypothesis. Or to put it more bluntly: a good scientific theory is a guess that does not prove wrong.

With his central doctrine established, Popper goes on to the technicalities. He discusses what composes the ‘range’ or ‘scope’ of a theory, and how some theories can be said to encompass others. He provides an admirable justification for Occam’s Razor—the preference for simpler over more complex explanations—since theories with fewer parameters are more easily falsified and thus, in his view, more informative. The biggest section is given over to probability. I admit that I had some difficulty following his argument at times, but the gist of his point is that probability must be interpreted ‘objectively,’ as frequency distributions, rather than ‘subjectively,’ as degrees of certainty, in order to be falsifiable; and also that the statistical results of experiments must be reproducible in order to avoid the possibility of statistical flukes.

All this leads up to a strangely combative section on quantum mechanics. Popper apparently was in the same camp as Einstein, and was put off by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Like Einstein, Popper was a realist and did not like the idea that a particle’s properties could be actually undetermined; he wanted to see the uncertainty of quantum mechanics as a byproduct of measurement or of ‘hidden variables’—not as representing something real about the universe. And like Einstein (though less famously) Popper proposed an experiment to decide the issue. The original experiment, as described in this book, was soon shown to be flawed; but a revised experiment was finally conducted in 1999, after Popper’s death. Though the experiment agreed with Popper’s prediction (showing that measuring an entangled photon does not affect its pair), it had no bearing on Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which restricts arbitrarily precise measurements on a single particle, not a pair of particles.

Incidentally, it is difficult to see why Popper is so uncomfortable with the uncertainty principle. Given his own dogma of falsifiability, the belief that nature is inherently deterministic (and that probabilistic theories are simply the result of a lack of our own knowledge) should be discarded as metaphysical. This is just one example of how Popper’s personality was out of harmony with his own doctrines. An advocate of the open society, he was famously authoritarian in his private life, which led to his own alienation. This is neither here nor there, but it is an interesting comment on the human animal.

Popper’s doctrine, like all great ideas, has proven both influential and controversial. For my part I think falsification a huge advance over Bacon’s induction or the positivists’ verification. And despite the complications, I think that falsifiability is a crucial test to distinguish, not only science from pseudo-science, but all dependable knowledge from myth. For both pseudo-science and myth generally distinguish themselves by admirably fitting the data set, but resisting falsification. Freud’s theories, for example, can accommodate themselves to any set of facts we throw at them; likewise for intelligent design, belief in supernatural beings, or conspiracy theories. All of these seem to explain everything—and in a way they do, since they fit the observable data—but really explain nothing, since they can accommodate any new observation.

There are some difficulties with falsification, of course. The first is observation. For what we observe, or even what we count as an ‘observation’, is colored by our background beliefs. Whether to regard a dot in the sky as a plane, a UFO, or an angel is shaped by the beliefs we already hold; thus it is possible to disregard observations that run counter to our theories, rather than falsifying the theories. What is more, theories never exist in isolation, but in an entire context of beliefs; so if one prediction is definitively falsified, it can still be unclear what we must change in our interconnected edifice of theories. Further, it is rare for experimental predictions to agree exactly with results; usually they are approximately correct. But where do we draw the line between falsification and approximate correctness? And last, if we formulate a theory which withstands test after test, predicting their results with extreme accuracy time and again, must we still regard the theory as a provisional guess?

To give Popper credit, he responds to all of these points in this work, though perhaps not with enough discussion. But all these criticisms belie the fact that so much of the philosophy of science written after Popper has taken his work as a starting point, either attempting to amplify, modify, or (dare I say it?) falsify his claims. For my part, though I was often bored by the dry style and baffled by the technical explanations, I found myself admiring Popper’s careful methodology: responding to criticisms, making fine distinctions, building up his system piece by piece. Here is a philosopher deeply committed to the ideal of rational argument and deeply engaged with understanding the world. I am excited to read more.

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Review: Protagoras & Meno

Review: Protagoras & Meno

ProtagorasProtagoras by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

But you cannot buy the wares of knowledge and carry them away in another vessel; when you have paid for them you must receive them into the soul and go your way, either greatly harmed or greatly benefited

In style the Protagoras is intermediate between the questioning Socrates of the early dialogues and the doctrinizing Socrates of the Gorgias. Here, Socrates is not only concerned in revealing the confusion of common notions, but also in advancing his own theories; yet the dialogue ends on an inconclusive note and, what is more, the ideas that Socrates advances are not the ones we recognize as Plato’s own mature philosophy.

As in the Gorgias, Socrates enters a gathering of sophists and their admirers, with the intent of questioning the practice of Sophism. Unlike Gorgias the rhetorician, however, Protagoras the sophist proves himself to be a formidable opponent. Indeed, in the beginning of the dialogue Protagoras has the upper hand, effectively resolving Socrates’ doubts regarding the teachability of virtue.

Socrates questions whether virtue can be taught, because, if virtue is teachable, then why do good men have bad sons? And why are their no specialists in virtue, as there are specialists in medicine and carpentry? Protagoras counters, first, with a myth about the origin of virtue, explaining that it was a gift of Zeus to all humans. Thus everyone is capable of virtue, and everyone is a teacher of virtue according to her ability; indeed you might say that virtue is taught all the time every day, just like Greek is. To illustrate the point, Protagoras uses a thought experiment involving a society where everyone played the flute. In such a society, some good men would likely have sons who were subpar flute players; but even the worst player in that society would likely be adept relative to a non flute-based society.

To drive home the point, Protagoras observes that punishment would be unreasonable if virtue were not teachable. For to punish as pure retribution is irrational and beastly—naked vengeance, which may satisfy anger but which will not undo any past wrongs. Punishment can only be rational if it is directed towards the future: to correct the wrongdoer and to discourage any others from following her example. The fact that the Athenians punish therefore proves that they believe that virtue can be taught.

Socrates uncharacteristically declares himself wholly satisfied and convinced by this answer. But one doubt remains: Are the parts of virtue, such as wisdom, courage, or piety, all independent, or are they all different names for the same basic thing? Protagoras at first asserts them to be different; a person may be courageous but impious, for example. However, Socrates trips him up with a question about opposites. Does everything have only one opposite? Yes, says Protagoras. So everything that is not wise is foolish? Of course. Then it is possible for piety to be foolish? At this Protagoras hesitates, and attempts to stop the conversation. Meanwhile, Socrates puts forth his doctrine that virtue is knowledge, specifically knowledge of pleasure and pain; and that this knowledge allows us to accurately estimate the pleasant and painful consequences of actions, and to make the best choice. (Plato would not persist with this position.)

In the course of this argument, Socrates and Protagoras have a dispute about the length of their responses. After Protagoras gives a little speech in answer to a question, Socrates professes himself too forgetful to follow long utterances, and requests that Protagoras stick with short answers. (This request is made to Gorgias, too.) Protagoras bristles at this and wants to quit; it takes the surrounding party to convince him to carry on. This seems to have been one of Socrates’ (and Plato’s) main complaints against the sophists, namely that they conceal poor reasoning in extended eloquent speeches. Plato also takes the opportunity to poke fun at those who argue by quoting and interpreting poems, putting a long and wholly implausible interpretation of a poem in Socrates’ mouth, thus illustrating that with sufficient ingenuity any meaning can be extracted from any poem.

The combatants disperse as friends and Socrates lives to argue another day.

MenoMeno by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?

Reading this dialogue immediately after reading the Protagoras confronts the reader with the mystery of Plato. For here are two dialogues, both about the same questions—What is virtue? Can it be taught?—and coming to opposite conclusions. And this leads to still more questions: Was Plato’s own opinion changing? Or was he representing Socrates’ opinions in one dialogue and his own opinions in another? Or did Socrates’ own opinion change? Or is it some other mixture of reported and original thought? It is impossible to know the answer—but that has never stopped philosophers.

The Meno is a fine example of Plato’s economy. Not a word is wasted in this dialogue. We begin with the inquiry and jump straight into difficulties. Can virtue be taught? Well, what is virtue? Meno says that each type of person has their own virtue—women, men, slaves, citizens, children, adults, and so on. To which Socrates responds that these virtues, qua being virtues, must all have at least one quality in common. (Here Wittgenstein would interject.) Then Meno throws up his hands, declares himself stunned, and offers his famous paradox (quoted above).

Socrates weasels his way out of this with the Platonic doctrine of remembrance. What if we are born (rather, reborn) already filled with true knowledge, and must merely remember what our souls learned during their sojourns in heaven. He demonstrates by leading one of Meno’s young slaves through a mathematical demonstration of square roots. By making the correct deductions, the boy is able to find the right conclusions, from which Socrates concludes that the boy “knew” the information all along. (Though this conclusion will likely strike most of us as absurd, one must keep in mind that, for Plato, all empirical knowledge—knowledge gained through the senses—was not truly knowledge at all, since the observed world changes, but the Truth remains forever eternal.)

The slave boy retreats, enlightened but not emancipated (depressingly, not even great thinkers had scruples about slavery back then), and Socrates and Meno return to the original question. Anytus the politician then appears, whom Socrates uses to prove that the sons of great men are often rather ordinary as far as virtue is concerned, which prompts Anytus to warn Socrates not to slander citizens (he would later be an accuser of Socrates during his trial). There are two possible explanations for this: Either virtue cannot be taught, in which case it is not knowledge; or these great men did not themselves possess the knowledge of virtue.

This second option is pursued by Socrates, who makes a delicate division between “knowledge” and “true opinion.” These may sound identical, but for Socrates the latter is distinguished by not being properly justified. If, for example, I guess that a book of poetry is under the table, and it is under the table, I have true opinion, since I was correct, but not knowledge, since my being correct was fortuitous. Socrates concludes that these great men acted virtuously from true opinion—vouchsafed by the gods—and not real knowledge, since they could not transmit their virtue.

As a teacher myself, I cannot help being interested in the questions of this dialogue. For me, the fundamental paradox was aptly summed up by Gibbon: “the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those dispositions where it is almost superfluous.” That is, teaching will most benefit those who least need teachers, since they are motivated to learn on their own, and vice versa. This seems to apply as much to mathematics as it does to virtue. Can a virtuous Hadrian whip a vicious Commodus into shape? I am skeptical. And yet, it is this quixotic task I have set before me.

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Review: Early Socratic Dialogues

Review: Early Socratic Dialogues

ApologyApology by Plato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is perhaps the most iconic of Plato’s works, the closest thing that philosophy has to a Sermon on the Mount. And just as with our Biblical narratives, the dialogue presents a historical difficulty. To what extent is this speech fact, and to what extent invention? The only other record we have of the trial is from Xenophon, who wasn’t even there. Plato was there—or at least he asserts that he was—and yet it beggars belief that the young, would-be amanuensis could retain the entire speech in his mind after one hearing, or that he could write it down with tolerable accuracy as the events unfolded. It seems far more likely (to me at least) that this speech is more or less a fabrication made well after the fact, attempting to preserve the flavor and impression of Socrates’ final speech but not the exact words themselves.

All speculation notwithstanding, the essential facts are preserved: Socrates was accused of denying the gods and of corrupting the youth, made a bold and waggish defense of himself, was convicted, refused to mitigate the consequences, and triumphantly accepted the death penalty. Yet what really emerges from this speech is not a record of events but the portrait of a man.

Here Plato reveals himself to be a writer of the highest order. Fact or fiction, Plato’s Socrates is one of the great characters of literature. Though Socrates’ life is at stake, he does not falter for a moment. He treats the accusations with amusement, dismissing them with playful arguments that reveal his absolute indifference to the outcome. Far from bowing and scraping to preserve his life, Socrates flaunts his superiority to his accusers, couching his boasts in an ironical humility. He is a man in perfect control of himself and in perfect peace with the world.

Even if the real Socrates was truly this remarkable, it would have taken a writer of exquisite talent to effectively render him in prose. And if this is largely Plato’s invention, we must rank him along with Shakespeare, for Socrates utters now-famous phrases nearly as quickly as Hamlet. Western philosophy could not have asked for a more rousing beginning.

CritoCrito by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The saga of Socrates’ trial and death continues. This time his friend, Crito, visits him in his cell to try to persuade him to escape into exile. Socrates is true to form, insisting that nothing—not the reputation of himself or his friend, nor concern for his own life—ought to be considered except reason. Crito must attempt to persuade Socrates to escape. The dialogue ends with the famous personification of the Laws of Athens, in the course of which Plato hits upon one of the earliest formulations of the social contract: by living in Athens, Socrates implicitly agrees to be bound by her laws. Since Socrates’ enjoyed the benefits of the laws, he must accept their penalties.

More so than in the Apology, one feels here that this is Plato’s invention and not something that actually occurred. The dialogue seems especially crafted to rehabilitate Socrates’ reputation, portraying the old philosopher as a dutiful citizen with a patriotic love of Athens. As a piece of drama the dialogue is one of Plato’s finest. It has considerable philosophic importance, too, for its aforementioned prefiguring of the social contract. Nevertheless I confess that I find Socrates’ reasoning extremely thin. Surely laws may be unjust; and a law may be just in itself and yet unjust or mistaken in its execution. If that is so, should the citizen passively accept it simply because it is the law? One senses the fine Socratic irony here, too, arguing playfully rather than sincerely. Socrates surely had compelling reasons to accept his death—but one doubts that pure patriotic regard of law was the whole of it.

CharmidesCharmides by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of the early inconclusive Socratic dialogues. Socrates, just come back from fighting in the Peloponnesian War, meets two of Plato’s relatives, Critias and Charmides. The latter of these is portrayed as a handsome youth, graceful of form and pure of mind. (Ironically enough, after the disastrous defeat of Athens in the war, both Critias and Charmides went on to become members of the Thirty Tyrants.) Socrates takes the opportunity to question Charmides about a Greek term that is rather unsatisfactorily translated into English as “temperance.”

The conversation takes many twists and turns, following the normal Socratic procedure: a definition is proposed (in this case, living quietly), an exception to the definition is found, a new one is proposed, and the process continues. As often happens in these early dialogues, the conversants seem to only get further from the point the longer they speak, getting hopelessly lost in the weeds of dialectic. Here we also see a quality that commonly irks readers of Plato, the tendency of Socrates’ interlocutors to give their unwavering assent to whatever rhetorical question, thought experiment, or logical distinction that Socrates poses, even when obviously fallacious. We also see Plato’s early tendency to get wrapped up in merely verbal confusions that hardly make sense when translated.

In any case, the dialogue takes an interesting turn when Critias proposes that temperance is a kind of meta-knowledge, the knowledge of knowledge. But how could we know for sure whether we knew something or not? And besides, how would that knowledge be useful? Merely knowing that we knew the art of medicine, for example, would be inconsequential compared to the knowledge of medicine itself. But how could temperance be inconsequential knowledge, if it is an important and noble attribute? The dialogue proceeds thus, seeming to intentionally confuse the issue through its series of involutions. But Plato will return to these questions with a vengeance.

LachesLaches by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here is another of the inconclusive dialogues. Socrates is asked by a couple of older men, Lysimachus and Melesias, whether to educate their sons in the art of fighting in armor. Socrates characteristically shifts the theme to a more abstract inquiry: What is courage? Commonsense definitions—such as “to stand and fight” or “to endure”—are quickly eliminated as admitting of exceptions. Nicias, a well-educated general, then proposes that courage is a certain kind of knowledge: that of future good and evil. After further dialectical maneuvering, the conversants find that they have gotten too general and have defined all of virtue and goodness, while leaving the specific nature of courage undefined. Socrates shrugs his shoulders and they break for lunch.

Though the question of courage is of somewhat limited philosophical interest, I do think that Plato hits upon the oft-overlooked role of knowledge (or lack of knowledge) in this seemingly physical or emotional virtue. This is characteristic of Plato, of course, for whom knowledge and goodness are tightly linked. Argument aside, the well-drawn characters of this dialogue are yet another example of Plato’s talent as a dramatist.

LysisLysis by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This dialogue is normally grouped along with Laches and Charmides as an early, inconclusive dialogue. They are also alike in providing amusing portraits of life in Athens. This dialogue, for example, has a humorous beginning. Ctesippus complains to Socrates that Hippothales is always going on about his great love for the beautiful youth, Lysis, and composing horrid love poems in honor of his beloved. Socrates chides Hippothales and professes to demonstrate the correct way to speak to a beloved. What commences from this, however, is a rather ordinary Socratic interrogation—this time about the relationship of privilege to knowledge—which I doubt was very useful to the would-be wooer.

The topic of the dialogue then abruptly shifts to the nature of friendship. My general impression from reading Ancient Greek writings it that friendship was a far more important institution for the Greeks than it is for us. In any case Socrates and his interlocutors make little headway with this seemingly obvious problem. Is friendship the attraction of like to like? of like to unlike? of good to good? of neutral to good?—and so on, until they call it quits. I do think that the nature of friendship, which we are wont to take for granted, is an interesting topic to explore. But this dialogue contains, at best, only suggestions for future investigation.

MenexenusMenexenus by Plato

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This work hardly merits the term “dialogue,” being mainly taken up by a lengthy speech. Socrates professes to have learned a funeral oration from a woman named Apia, who was Pericles’ consort. Plato seems to have been simultaneously parodying the practice of giving these speeches, but also proving his superiority to other writers of the genre, particularly Thucydides. If it was Plato’s goal to best the historian, he fell far short; and nowadays the speech reads like a silly rhetorical exercise, albeit of some historic importance.

IonIon by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This lovely little dialogue, one of Plato’s shortest works, involves Socrates and the rhapsode, Ion. Ion is a rhapsode, which means that he recites, embellishes, and interprets poetry. In Ion’s case he is specialized in Homer, and admits that he knows nothing about any other poet. Socrates pounces upon this. How is it possible to master the best and most difficult of something, and leave the rest untouched? Also, how can Ion give sensible interpretations of the events of Homer’s poetry, when he does not have any of the skills—fishing, sailing, leading armies, and so on—mentioned in the poems?
Ion is not the brightest fellow, and is not able to give any sensible answer to these questions.

Socrates presses his point that Ion has no real knowledge and instead practices his art through inspiration. This, of course, is a famous Platonic assertion, which reappears many times throughout his works. However, I find his reasoning supremely unconvincing here. There is no absurdity in only understanding Homer and no other poet; poetry is not mathematics, with the more complex manifestations derived from the simpler. Further, there is no absurdity in being able to interpret a poetic passage about fishing while knowing fairly little about fishing itself. These ideas apparently did not occur to Ion (or Plato). But the simplicity of Ion, who is oblivious to Socrates’ irony, is winsome enough to make this a delightful read.

EuthyphroEuthyphro by Plato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Euthyphro begins the story of the trial and death of Socrates. It is one of Plato’s best known and, I think, best executed pieces. Here we see the Socratic dialogue form stripped to its bare essentials, with only two speakers, one problem, and minimal framing. Socrates is on his way to his trial; he has been accused, among other things, of impiety. He meets Euthyphro, a soothsayer, who is on his way to his own trial; he is prosecuting his father for murder, after his father’s negligence led to the death of a worker who had, himself, killed a slave. Socrates asks Euthyphro how he can be sure that this prosecution is the right thing to do, which leads to a discussion of piety.

The argument takes many turns, of course, but boils down to the famous Euthyphro dilemma: Is an action pious because it is beloved by the gods, or beloved by the gods because it is pious? While this may seem like mere sophistry, the implications of this question are immensely destructive to theistic ethical codes. For if morality exists independently of God (or, in other words, if we can know what is right or wrong without consulting the divine will) why consider God the fountain of good? And if morality is defined by the will of a God, how can we know what that will is? Perhaps via revelation: but then how distinguish legitimate and fake revelation? For if morality had no existence except the will of God, then no revelation, however apparently abominable, could be discounted. And since eyewitness testimony is nefariously unreliable, virtually no test would be able to unequivocally determine which “revelation” was to be followed. The only way out of the dilemma is to accept that good and bad can be distinguished without any supernatural considerations.

Euthyphro is, thus, of immense philosophical interest. It is also a dramatic masterpiece. Socrates’ ironic demeanor in dealing with the dense Euthyphro is delicious. Perhaps in no other work has Plato so convincingly shown the contrast between the reflective and the non-reflective mind. I continually found myself chuckling as I read. Yet again I am amazed that Plato, who started the Western philosophic tradition, remains its most able writer.

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Review: Gorgias

Review: Gorgias

GorgiasGorgias by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… for philosophy, Socrates, if pursued in moderation and at the proper age, is an elegant accomplishment, but too much philosophy is the ruin of human life.

Gorgias is easily one of Plato’s best stand-alone dialogues. Indeed, as others have mentioned, it often reads like a germinal version of the Republic, so closely does it track the same themes. A transitional dialogue, the early know-nothing Socrates of unanswered questions is already gone; instead we get Socrates espousing some of Plato’s key positions on truth and morality.

Socrates descends on a party of rhetoricians, seemingly determined to expose them. He questions Gorgias, a well-known teacher of rhetoric, in the attempt to pinpoint what, exactly, rhetoric consists of. We get the usual Socratic paradoxes: if we ought to be convinced by knowledgeable people—a doctor when it comes to medicine, an architect when it comes to buildings—how can somebody who lacks this knowledge teach the art of convincing?

Gorgias insists that rhetoric is used to accomplish justice. But is Gorgias an expert on justice? No. Are his pupils already just? Neither. And cannot rhetoric be used for unjust ends? Of course. This effectively trips up the old rhetorician. Gorgias’ energetic young pupil, Polus, steps up to defend the old master. He denies what Gorgias said about rhetoric being used to accomplish justice, and instead claims that it is used to gain power.

This brings Socrates to another one of his paradoxes: that powerful orators are actually to be pitied, since inflicting injustice is worse than suffering injustice. Though Polus laughs, Socrates trips him up just as they did his mentor, by getting him to assent to a seemingly unobjectionable proposition and then deducing from them surprising conclusions. (Socrates was not, you see, without his own rhetorical tricks.) Polus finds himself agreeing that tyrants are to be pitied.

At this, Callicles enters the fray, not a rhetorician but an Athenian gentleman and a man of affairs, who plays the same role that Thrasymachus plays in the Republic. He scorns philosophy and insults Socrates. All this highfalutin’ talk of justice and truth and such rubbish. Doesn’t Socrates know that what is right is a mere convention and justice is simply whatever the strong wish? Socrates then embarks on his usual procedure, trying to get Callicles to assent to a proposition that is incompatible with Callicles’ position. Callicles eventually gets confused and tired and gives up, allowing Socrates to finish with a grand speech and a Platonic myth about the judgment of souls.

To the modern reader very little in this dialogue will be convincing. Plato is no doubt right that rhetoric is, at best, neither bad nor good, but is akin to cosmetics or cooking rather than exercise or medicine—the art of pleasing rather than improving people. Yet since we have learned that we cannot trust people to be selfless, disinterested seekers after the truth—as Socrates repeatedly claims to be—we have decided that it’s best to let self-interested parties compete with all the tools at their disposal for their audience’s attention. Heaven knows this procedure is far from perfect and leaves us vulnerable to demagogues. But the world has proven depressingly bereft of pure souls like Socrates.

Also unconvincing is Plato’s moral stance—namely, that those who commit injustice are to be pitied rather than envied. He proves, of course, that the unjust are more deserving of punishment than the just; this was never in doubt. But he does not, and cannot, prove that the unjust are less happy—since a single jolly tyrant would refute his whole chain of reasoning. Indeed, by establishing a moral precept that is so independent of happiness, Socrates falls into the same plight as did Kant in his categorical imperative. This is a serious difficulty, since, if acting justly can easily lead to unhappiness, what is the motivation to do so? The only way out of this dilemma, as both thinkers seemed to realize, was to hypothesize an afterlife where everyone got their just desserts—the good their reward and the bad their castigation. Needless to say I do not find this solution compelling.

Yet you can disagree with all of Plato’s positions and still relish this dialogue. This is because, as usual, the most charming thing about Plato is that he is so much bigger than his conclusions. Though Socrates is Plato’s hero and mouthpiece, Plato also seems to be aware of Socrates’ (and his own) limitations. Callicles is not a mere strawman, but puts forward a truly consistent worldview; and Plato leaves it in doubt whether his own arguments prevailed. He even puts some good comebacks in Callicles’ mouth: “Yes, by the Gods, you are literally always talking of cobblers and fullers and cooks and doctors, as if this had to do with our argument.” By the Gods, he is!

(Cover photo by Jebulon; licensed under CC0; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Review: The Feeling Good Handbook

Review: The Feeling Good Handbook

The Feeling Good HandbookThe Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unlike with previous Burns books, I read this one while I was feeling relatively normal and untroubled. I did this because I sensed myself relapsing. Cognitive therapy, as you might know, is based on the premise that your thoughts control your moods and emotions. Thus it works by changing your beliefs and even your values in order to alleviate depression, anxiety, and problems with relationships. In my own experience, this can have a remarkably liberating effect. The problem is that, when the relief passes and you once more get sucked into the humdrum world of daily troubles, the original beliefs and values come creeping back.

But why is this? Why are we so prone to adopting irrational and self-defeating patterns of thought? Why do we embrace unrealistic standards, make unjustified assumptions, jump to unwarranted conclusions—only to wallow in misery and fear and loneliness—when a few pen-and-paper exercises is sometimes all we need to feel better? It is peculiar. Robert Wright argues that our cognitive imperfections stem from our evolutionary heritage. A competitive and materialistic culture might also contribute. Burns, for his part, does not offer much in the way of explanation; his aim is therapy, not theory. Yet answering this question seems vital if we are to fight an offensive battle rather than a defensive one.

It seems to me that the most proactive strategy would be to intervene on the social rather than the psychological realm (if that were possible). To pick a simple example, if an obsession with being the best is really self-defeating—at least as far as happiness is concerned—then why the opposite message so passionately embraced in the culture at large?

Perhaps it is because these value systems, which equate happiness with accomplishment, do benefit the group even if they are not psychologically desirable. An office full of perfectionistic over-achievers might out-compete an office full of contented workers with nothing to prove. Advertisements may not have much effect in a world of high self-esteem. And political parties will have trouble getting elected in a world without anxiety. In these and a thousand other ways, society depends on the very thoughts and attitudes that books like this try to combat. No wonder that relapse is common once therapy ceases.

It is also true that there are hidden, and sometimes ugly, benefits to our bad habits. It feels satisfying to think oneself superior to others. Insulting and controlling other people brings a rush. Anxiety helps us to avoid discomfort. Intimacy requires painful vulnerability. And who wants to accept imperfections in oneself? Burns’ methods require that we see ourselves as flawed, that we acknowledge that other people have a point, that our anger is often unjustified, that we face our fears—and who wants to do that? Indeed, sometimes the beliefs that are most precious to us, the beliefs that form our identity and reality, are just what cognitive therapy encourages us to give up—the belief that, for example, your money makes you superior, or that life is rotten, or that your wife is crazy—and these beliefs can seem more important than happiness itself.

Well, I’m not sure I have a solution to this, other than meditating and occasionally dipping into some cognitive therapy books when I feel particularly troubled. For that purpose The Feeling Good Handbook is well suited, since it is a sort of omnibus of Burns’ general approach, with sections on depression, anxiety, and communication. Even though I was not looking for any special relief, I still found the book useful (specifically the section on procrastination, which prompted me to finally begin submitting my novel to agents). As usual, Burns is a heartening voice—compassionate, intelligent, and motivating—who is accessible without descending into tackiness. And it is always a relief to read his anecdotes, since they remind me that these problems, far from hopeless or strange, are part of the human condition.

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Review: Two Books by Henry Adams

Review: Two Books by Henry Adams

The Education of Henry Adams : An AutobiographyThe Education of Henry Adams : An Autobiography by Henry Adams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once more! this is a story of education, not of adventure! It is meant to help young men—or such as have intelligence enough to seek help—but it is not meant to amuse them.

Everyone agrees that this book is difficult and odd. An autobiography of an American man of letters, the son of a diplomat, grandson of a president, historian, journalist, secretary, all told in the third person, written for his private circle of friends. At once claiming to be the story of one man’s life, a critique of the educational methods of the nineteenth century, a parable of the fin de siècle, and a new theory of history, the book is, in reality, none of the above, and is instead the sigh of an old man looking back on his life.

I must admit that I found this book exasperating in the extreme. One quickly gets the impression that, when Adams uses the word “education,” it is meaningless or worse than meaningless. He goes to London with his father, and becomes intimately acquainted with the workings of British politics, all during the difficult years of the American Civil War, and complains that he received no useful “education.” He teaches at Harvard for seven years, a professor of Medieval History, and concludes: “On the whole, he was content neither with what he had taught nor with the way he had taught it. The seven years in teaching seemed to him lost.” He becomes a journalist in the capital, and then works on a seven-volume history of America during Jefferson’s presidency; and still, after all this, he insists he has received no useful “education.” And after every phase of his life, when Adams rings the same gloomy bell, the reader asks: “What on earth would satisfy you, Mr. Adams?”

Another exasperating element is the degree to which Adams assumes a familiarity with the intricacies of 19th century politics. Reading the chapters when he was in England felt like reading a grocer’s shopkeeping books. It was disjointed, jerky, and, worst of all, didn’t explain a thing. At first, I assumed this difficulty resulted from Adams’s originally writing the book for his circle of friends; but the obscurity goes even further: it is as if Adams wrote the book only for himself. The book swings wildly in tone from dry note-taking to half-formed and half-coherent abstractions, all written in a prose style lucidly opaque.

Adams also gives the impression of being a bit muddle-headed. He spends some time talking about Lyell’s geology and Darwin’s evolution, and it soon becomes apparent he understands neither. He goes on long tangents about “force,” while it is obvious that what Adams means by that word is as meaningless as what he means by “education.” He ends the book on a very confused and seemingly pointless attempt to give a mathematical explanation of history, but never reaches above vague commonplaces, endlessly repeated. I seldom came across an insight of his that was insightful.

In short, the impression was that Adams had taken all of the stuff of his life—his doings, his friendships, his thoughts, his career, his background—and left it out to bake in the hot sun, until all the savor and succulence was scorched out of it, leaving only a tough jerky that wearies the jaw in the attempt to chew the husk.

Still, after all this, I must admit that this book has a strange power. There were times I could not put it down, even when I felt I wasn’t understanding a thing. Adams always seemed to be only two steps away from a great insight, an astounding thought; but he never quite reaches it, which is why the book can seem so tragic. He was always searching and never finding; and the reader is left in doubt what he was searching for, and whether anyone will ever find it. In his elegant, knotty prose, he turns out aphorism after aphorism—all apparently insightful, but in reality empty—popping like soap bubbles leaving nothing but air. And what saves the book is that Adams knew this, and yet could do nothing better.

Mont-Saint-Michel and ChartresMont-Saint-Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Saint Thomas did not allow the Deity the right to contradict Himself, which is one of man’s chief pleasures.

I read this book in preparation for my visit to Chartres, which was just last week. I had not been very fond of Adam’s most famous book, his Education, but I had high hopes that his writing would improve when his focus shifted to something other than his own life. Yet I have found the two books discouragingly similar.

As a stylist Adams appears, at least superficially, quite strong. His sentences are clear and mostly elegant, occasionally epigrammatic. But stylistic problems appear on a higher level of organization. Both Adam’s autobiography and this book were not originally written for publication, but for his close circle of family and friends; and as a result, Adams seems to explain everything except what most needs to be explained. His ideas float against a background that he does not provide, making his train of thought appear out of context. In this he reminds me of George Santayana, who similarly omits to signal where he is going and why he is going there, though Adams lacks the philosopher’s occasionally forays into sublimity to compensate. The result is rather irritating, superficially clear but actually opaque, like overhearing an eloquent old man talk to himself.

But my gravest complaint about Adams, both here and in his autobiography, is his tendency to organize his books around central ideas that I find vague and vapid. In the Education, this takes the form of his armchair theorizing about “force,” the Dynamo, and the laws of physics as applied to history, and even more prominently in his main theme of “education,” his conception of which remains unclear to the very end. In this book it mainly takes the form of his insistence that “The Virgen” was personally involved in the construction of Chartres Cathedral. To be fair, he tends to treat these ideas (and himself) with a considerable amount of irony; but the irony does not amount to full satire, leaving it unclear whether he is merely kidding or if he intends these ideas to be somehow insightful.

Again, just as in his autobiography, here the dominant mood is notalgia. Though extremely successful, Adams apparently felt out of harmony with his world and yearned for a time when society was simpler and more unified. This leads him quite naturally to the Middle Ages, to the poetry, to the great cathedrals, and to the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, which unite art and science into a seamless whole. Consequently this book, far from being historical analysis, is more of a personal appreciation of the French Medieval period, spinning off into fantasy or speculation wherever it suits him. This self-indulgent tone is grating to somebody trying to learn about Chartres.

Now that I have gotten all this criticism out of the way, I must admit that the book, like his autobiography, has its merits and charms. He is obviously fond of this period, and so writes in a tone of enthusiastic admiration that proves quite infectious. This keen appreciation for the “spirit” of the Medieval period is the book’s most useful attribute, helping to put the reader in the mindset to appreciate the epoch’s art, poetry, and thought. I found Adams’s chapters on architecture, specifically on Chartres, to be stuffy and difficult to follow—for here, as in his chapters on British politics in the Education—he assumes a level of familiarity (specifically about the French royal family) that the reader is unlikely to possess. But when context is provided by an external source, Adams can be quite pleasant. When I visited Chartres, and saw its magnificent stained glass for myself, his chapters ceased to be so vexing.

The chapters I most enjoyed were the final three, about philosophy—specifically, Abelard, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Thomas Aquinas—since here my background was not so lacking. Yet even here it must be said that Adams’s comments are more in the spirit of an amateurish aficionado rather than a serious student. He interprets Aquinas as an “artist” rather than a thinker, repeatedly disqualifying himself from passing sentence on Aquinas’s arguments (though he says some perceptive things in spite of this).

By contrast I thought the chapters on poetry were the worst, since they mainly consisted of excerpts of poetry, in Latin or Medieval French, with repeated assurances of their high quality and their untranslatable beauty. (His mostly bland translations serve to prove his point.) But in general Adams’s approach to poetry is the same as his approach to architecture and theology, mostly confined to passionate declarations of affection, without much attempt at analysis or insight.

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(Cover photo by Benh LIEU SONG; licensed under CC BY 2.5; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

Review: The Rural Trilogy (Lorca)

Review: The Rural Trilogy (Lorca)

Bodas de sangreBodas de sangre by Federico García Lorca

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bodas de Sangre, or Blood Weddings, is an odd combination of the ancient and the modern. The story could not be more elemental: the conflict of love and duty, the tragedy of death. And yet the style is pure Lorca—symbolic, surrealistic, modern. The play is effective, not for any subtlety or refinement, but for the sheer amount of force that Lorca brings to bear on the main themes. The characters are nameless archetypes, whose speech is poetic passion. Lorca’s use of naturalistic imagery in his poetry—animals, trees, rivers, the moon—reinforces the primeval quality of the story, as if tragedy were a law of the universe. I am excited to read the other two plays of Lorca’s so-called rural trilogy.

La casa de Bernarda AlbaLa casa de Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second of Lorca’s “rural trilogy” I have read, and if anything I liked it even more than Bodas de Sangre. In form and theme the two are quite similar. Like a Greek tragedy, the plot is simplicity itself, with one obvious conflict and one calamitous resolution. Again, Lorca’s power as a dramatist comes, not from subtlety or wit, but from pure passion. The incompatibility between traditional values and human impulses, with all its tragic implications, is laid bare by Lorca, who shows us a culture whose religious mores and gender norms oppress women and deprive them of a fulfilling life. Strikingly, the cast of characters is entirely female, even though the conflict revolves around a male who is always offstage. This allows Lorca to focus on a side of life that was often swept aside, while maintaining an atmosphere of tension and constraint that makes the play so riveting. I am excited for Yerma.

YermaYerma by Federico García Lorca

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have enjoyed each play of Lorca’s rural trilogy more than the last. He is such a heartrending writer. Even on the page, the emotion of the play is raw and deeply affecting. He had an acute ear for dialogue, and could write as naturalistically as anyone; and when this naturalism is supplemented by his poetic gifts—at times surrealistic, at times pastoral—the language becomes electric with meaning. The word I keep coming back to is “elemental,” since the plays dramatize basic and timeless tragedies of human life.

In this play the tragedy is the anguish caused by being childless in a time when women were valued as mothers and mostly confined to the house. As in the other two plays in the so-called “trilogy” (they all have distinct plots), the basic conflict is between conservative, religious traditions and spontaneous human impulses. Lorca seems to have felt deeply the suffering caused by an uncompromising Catholic morality, and convincingly shows how it doomed people to lifelong unhappiness. It is fittingly tragic that this same moral code contributed to Lorca’s own death.

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