Review: Thomas Jefferson (Meacham)

Review: Thomas Jefferson (Meacham)
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I did not enjoy this book. But my opinion might not be entirely fair, since it is colored by having read biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams—two of Jefferson’s political foes—right before this, by two authors (Chernow and McCullough) whom I vastly prefer. This meant that I brought some strong preconceptions to the experience.

Nevertheless, I came to this book with a great deal of hope. Jefferson had come off rather badly in the two above-mentioned biographies. I wanted to see the other side of the man, the side that so many have admired. In fact, I played the audiobook recording of this book on a family trip down to Virginia, on our way to visit Jefferson’s home, Monticello, thinking that Meacham’s biography would whet our thirst for Jefferson history.

The effect was the opposite. All of us came away with a strong distaste for Jefferson, as well as dissatisfaction for Meacham’s apologetic treatment of the man. But before getting into differing opinions of Jefferson—of which there are endless—I shall talk about the writing, of which there may be more agreement.

To do justice to Jefferson the man would require a great deal of psychological subtly. Jefferson was reserved, withdrawn, even sphinx-like, a man full of contradictions. In the hands of an acute writer, Jefferson would make for a fascinating character-study. Yet Meacham is almost wholly uninterested in psychology. Jefferson is painted more vividly in his cameos in the Hamilton and Adams biographies than he is here.

To my mind, Jefferson was a man whom one could never take at face value, yet Meacham is often content to do just that. To pick just one example, in the exchange between Jefferson and Abigail Adams on the scurrilous writings of James Callender, Meacham is content to repeat Jefferson’s bland and disingenuous excuses of his support for Callender’s vilifications of John Adam’s character (that he bailed Callender out of jail merely because they held similar political views). Such instances are repeated throughout the book, with Meacham accepting as honest what I often read as intentionally misleading or simply duplicitous.

In any case, even if Jefferson is put to one side, no other personage in this book comes alive, as do so many in the above-named biographies. John Adams—a raging personality of epic proportion—is hardly more exciting than the taciturn George Washington. I was particularly disappointed at the lack of attention paid to Jefferson’s close and important relationship with James Madison, who is absent far too often in these pages, and who leaves hardly any impression whatever.

Meacham also lacks interest in drama. Good biographies can pull you into the historical moment, and make you feel how contingent the outcome of important events was on the quirks of personality or even simple chance. Yet in this book everything is a fait accompli. Difficult and arduous accomplishments, moments of danger and discord, are all summarized and narrated with a kind of mellow assurance that these events were destined to come to pass. The result is a book that is emotionally flat.

I would have excused these faults if Meacham had dug deep into the historical background or the political issues. But these, too, are given only a superficial treatment. Not nearly enough context is given, for example, for the reader to understand exactly why the Declaration of Independence was such a revolutionary document at that time. The same can be said for the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty.

Instead, Meacham prefers to resort to strings of vague, Latinate adjectives and to draw grand-sounding conclusions. This is his habitual mode. The following passage, from the Prologue, gives a taste of this tone:

In pursuit of his ends, Jefferson sought, acquired, and wielded power, which is the bending of the world to one’s will, the remaking of reality in one’s own image. Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators: They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma.

This tendency often leads him to substitute clichés for insight:

America has always been torn between the ideal and the real, between noble goals and inevitable compromise. So was Jefferson. In his head and in his heart, as in the nation itself, the perfect warred with the good, the intellectual with the visceral. In him as in America, that conflict was, and is, a war without end.

To me, this is neither good prose nor does it provide any valuable information. You could say all of the same things about virtually any nation or political leader. And in any case I do not think it is even true. Were all of Jefferson’s goals “noble”? Is compromise “inevitable”? Is the “war” between the “ideal and the real” actually similar to the conflict between “the intellectual” and “the visceral”? What does this even mean? This passage is hardly even valid as a platitude.

This leads me to what is my core criticism of the book: Jon Meacham’s understanding of Jefferson. Meacham’s central point is that Jefferson was a man of high ideals, but someone who was willing to compromise on his ideals in order to be an effective politician. This is the “Art of Power.” Thus, all of Jefferson’s pronouncements of principle are taken at face value, and all of his actions that do not align with his stated valued are excused as shrewd maneuvering.

Yet there is a difference between compromising on one’s vision and doing just the opposite. Consider Jefferson’s presidency. After having spent the last twelve years whipping up fears of overbearing central power, Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase and instituted a trade embargo—two huge expansions of federal power. Meacham would have us see these moves as capitulations to circumstances. But I think Jefferson’s tendency to flout the dictates of his own pen are too numerous to excuse. To pick another example, although he often styled himself above politicking and libel, Jefferson frequently employed others to write attacks on his enemies (as in the case of James Callender).

Here is another example. After stoking fear of a national army, and after his strong advocacy of the separation of the legislative and executive powers, once in office Jefferson himself asked a senator to introduce a bill approving military force—a direct contradiction of his stated principles on both counts. Characteristically, Jefferson also requested that the senator burn his note to him, so as not to appear to be meddling in the legislature. This is what Meacham has to say on the subject: “His adversaries might see such maneuvers as hypocritical and underhanded, but in Jefferson’s mind he was doing the right thing the right way. To seize power grandly would threaten the democratic ethos of the country—an ethos he thought essential.”

As an apology for Jefferson’s actions, this makes little sense to me. First, it hardly matters whether Jefferson thought he was doing the right thing in his mind. We all are, always. Second, to consider the mere ethos of democracy important while seizing power is certainly not democratic in any meaningful sense. This is typical of the whole book: where Meacham sees a flexible and enlightened politician, I see a person totally unwilling to live by the principles that he professes.

This is, of course, most flagrantly true in the case of slavery—an area in which Jefferson is inexcusable. To do Meacham credit, he does not attempt to justify Jefferson’s life of slaveholding. Nevertheless, I think he paid far too little attention to Jefferson’s domestic situation, which was totally dominated by slaves: as workers, servants, a sexual partner, and even his own children.

I see the issue of slavery as the most telling fact of Jefferson’s psychology, showcasing his ability to compartmentalize his thoughts. None of his actions were self-consistent. He wrote that slavery was evil and must end one day. But he did nothing to end it. At the same time, he thought that blacks could never co-exist with whites, all while having a life built upon the backs of slaves, living in constant contact with them. If he really believed that slaves were genetically inferior, as he wrote, how could he have had children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves? Could he really believe that his own children with Hemings were naturally inferior? And if he did not, how could he totally relegate these children, his own blood, to a subservient or an invisible role in his life?

These questions leave me with a rather disturbing image. Meacham, however, sees Jefferson as a flawed hero—whose vision of artful politics has much to teach us. Jefferson did likely leave the world better than he found it. And, believe me, I find many aspects of Jefferson extremely admirable. In many ways I aspire to Jefferson’s wide interests and his intellectual greatness. But I think that any honest reckoning of the man will have to deal with these darker shades of his character. The vision of politics that Meacham offers, where high principles exist mostly as rhetoric or ethos, is not for me.

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Review: John Adams (McCullough)

Review: John Adams (McCullough)
John Adams

John Adams by David McCullough

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a wholly enjoyable book, which is the secret of its success. Merely flipping through and scanning a couple passages was enough to convince me to abandon everything else I was reading and to go on a pleasure cruise through history. McCullough’s writing is charming to a rare degree—elevated yet folksy, readable without being simple, and filled with personality without being opinionated. I can see why he is so popular.

Yet it must be said that McCullough achieves this charm by relegating much of the tedious, dreary, or ugly side of Adams’s life to the background. A serious intellectual appraisal of Adams would require a much deeper analysis of his political writings; but here they are minor episodes. A serious appraisal of Adams’s presidency would require a far more thorough review of his policies and legistlation, most obviously the Alien and Sedition Acts. Yet here they are just touched upon. Obviously, such a book as I am describing would be both longer and, almost certainly, duller.

Instead of attempting any kind of definitive appraisal, McCullough gives us a literary biography, a portrait of a man in his times. And Adams is well chosen for the subject of such a book. He left a huge correspondence and a copious diary, writing with rare candor and verve throughout his life, which gives the happy biographer a great deal to work with. Further, Adams was a personality of rare proportion: prickly, warm, passionate, brilliant, stubborn, loyal, foolhardy, blunt, obtuse, principled… the list is endless. As are all of us, Adams was a strange inter-mixture of virtues and vices, yet none of his were moderate.

Even if Adams had been devoid of character, however, the events of his life would still attract attention. He was at the forefront of the Continental Congress, instrumental in driving the early stages of the Revolutionary War: creating an army, appointing Washington to head it, declaring independence, and then choosing Jefferson to draft the declaration. Then, Adams had a long and adventurous life in Europe, working in England, France, and the Netherlands—a feast for the biographer. What is more, Adams was intimately involved with many of the leading personalities of the times, not to mention being the father of another president. So you can see that McCullough had plenty of grist for his mill.

Apart from all of this, John Adams was married to perhaps an even stronger character, Abigail. She comes across as truly John’s better half, if not more intelligent than wiser than he, with a personality more stable but no less fascinating. Thus the biography is, quite often, more of a dual biography of these two extraordinary people. Jefferson receives almost as much attention as Abigail, alternately friend and foe, serving as Adams’s foil: calm, reserved, duplicitous, underhanded, and often unwilling to live by the principles he professes—which makes him a far more effective politician. McCullough turns Adams and Jefferson into the twin poles of the Revolution, much as Chernow did with Hamilton and Jefferson. I suppose I should read something about Jefferson now.

Even if the reader will not come away with an understanding of Adams’s politics and policies, there is still a great deal of value in this book. As with every McCullough book, it is a window into a bygone age, illuminated by bright personalities. And in my case, that is all I wanted.



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Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like many on Goodreads, I decided to read this book because of Manny’s enthusiastic review. And I am glad I did. As a teacher of English as a foreign language, it seemed high time that I understand something of the language’s history. This book was an excellent choice, since it focused on that aspect of English most pesky to foreign speakers—grammar—while avoiding the too-often-told story of the growth of English vocabulary via French and Latin.

McWhorter begins by focusing on two distinctive features of English grammar: the so-called ‘meaningless’ do (as in, “Do you eat rabbits?”) and the use of the progressive in order to talk about the present (as in, “I am going,” rather than simply “I go”). Not coincidentally, these two aspect of English cause some of the most persistent errors in my students. In Spanish, just like in every other European language I know, there is no auxiliary verb needed for negations or questions; you can simply ask “¿Comes conejos?” Similarly, in Spanish, as in German or French, you can use the simple present to refer to what you are doing now; thus, a Spaniard can say “Voy” to express a current movement, and they reserve “Estoy yendo” for special emphasis.

Curiously, no other Germanic languages have these features. Indeed, they are absent (according to McWhorter) from every other European language, with the notable exception of the Celtic languages (specifically, Welsh and Cornish). This leads him to the quite natural supposition that the indigenous Celtic languages exerted an influence on the Old English spoken by the invading Anglo-Saxons. He musters quite a number of evidences and arguments in support of this thesis, to the extent that I was pretty worn out by the end of the chapter.

To be fair, this idea is considered quite controversial in the academic community, so McWhorter felt the need to champion it in full battle array. Nevertheless I think the maxim “Know your audience” applies here. I presume most readers of this book will be, like me, non-specialists, with little reason to be skeptical of the Celtic influence; to the contrary, it struck me as extremely plausible. So McWhorter’s harping on the point was simply taxing. In any case, if he is looking to influence the academic community, a short popular book is not the medium to do it.

McWhorter’s next chapter deals with the Viking influence, which he holds responsible for the jettisoning of much of Old English’s serpentine Germanic grammar, resulting in the relatively “easy” language we have today. And he rounds out the book by making the considerably more speculative argument that Proto-Germanic diverged in such a distinctive way from Proto-Indo-European because a large number of Semitic speakers (Phoenicians who had made it to Denmark) learned the language. At this point, I admit that I began to have reservations about McWhorter’s method. Despite the reasonableness of the Celtic-English and the Scandinavian-English hypotheses, the cumulative effects of McWhorter’s arguments was to weaken each.

McWhorter’s specialty is researching how languages influenced one another historically; and one begins to suspect that this academic orientation leads him to see evidence for this phenomenon everywhere. To me it is unsatisfying to write a history of English as a series of stories, however plausible, of how it was influenced by other languages. This is because, logically, in order for there to be distinct languages capable of mixing there must first be languages capable of transforming without any linguistic contact. It can all begin to sound like a biologist who insists that the reason elephants have tusks is because proto-elephants mated with proto-walruses epochs ago.

This is an unfair comparison, of course; and to repeat I think his Celtic argument is quite strong. However, the more one reads, the more McWhorter’s method can begin to sound unsettlingly like Just-So stories. Some inconsistencies in the arguments make this clear. For example, he brushes aside the paucity of Celtic vocabulary in English, while citing the many Scandinavian loan-words as evidence for Viking influence (not to mention the possible Semitic loan-words in Proto-Germanic). To me it seems prima facie dubious that Welsh and Cornish speakers were able to fundamentally transform English’s grammar without leaving a considerable stockpile of loanwords. Importing words is the most natural thing in the world when learning a foreign language; I do it all the time, as do my students.

To objections like these McWhorter is always able to point to a case where a similar event occurred as the scenario he is describing. But, again, one surmises that the corpus of available examples is large enough to back up any claim he wishes to impose. McWhorter criticizes other linguists for ignoring the causes of language change. But is invoking the influence of other languages a satisfying explanation? To me this is of the same order as arguing that life on Earth originally came from Mars. Perhaps, but how does life arise in the first place?

Now, it may be unfair of me to nitpick what is, after all, a popular book. But if McWhorter saw fit to include so much argument in favor of his uncommonly-held opinions, I think it behooves readers to be somewhat skeptical, especially since the general reader has no specialized knowledge to ground her acceptance or rejection of McWhorter’s conclusions. For my part, I think a more expository and less polemical book on the history of English would have made for far more pleasing reading. Yet McWhorter is an engaging writer and an original thinker, so it was valuable to learn of his approach to linguistics.



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Review: Letters of the Younger Pliny

Review: Letters of the Younger Pliny

The Letters of the Younger Pliny by Pliny the Younger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… the work of getting anybody to cheerfully undertake the monotony and drudgery of education must be effected not by pay merely, but by a skillfully worked-up appeal to the emotions as well.

I read this book in preparation for a recent visit to Pompeii; and it was an excellent choice. The ancient letters and the ruined city make for an ideal pairing, as both offer a remarkable look into daily life in ancient Rome. Pliny had a long and eventful career: an orator, magistrate, lawyer, and writer. His correspondence includes mundane details, tender love letters, poetic reflections, philosophical musings, and much else. Whatever the subject, his personality shines through: intelligent, urbane, loyal, if a bit ostentatious and pompous. He is, above all, eloquent; and his letters are without exception written in superb prose.

Though each epistle is a valuable historical document, some are conspicuously noteworthy. Most interesting for me was his description of the eruption of Vesuvius, which resulted in the death of his illustrious uncle, Pliny the Elder. He recounts his uncle’s and his own experience in two letters to his friend the historian Cornelius Tacitus. Here, with an eye to posterity, perhaps, Pliny reaches the height of his literary skill as he relates his escape from the eruption:

We had scarcely sat down when night came upon us, not such as we have seen when the sky is cloudy, or when there is no moon, but that of a room when it is shut up, and all the lights put out. You might hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men; some calling for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands, and seeking to recognize each other by the voices that replied; one lamenting his own fate, another that of his family; some wishing to die, from the very fear of dying; some lifting their hands to the gods; but the greater part convinced that there were now no gods at all, and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come upon the world.

The collection is also invaluable for the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan. In these letters Pliny’s style is more restrained and formal; he takes the part of a supplicant and an apprentice. For the most part he is asking the Emperor for a favor or for advice. Much of it is concerned with the proper way to interpret the law and to distribute punishments, or else asking for permission to erect aqueducts, temples, and the like. Most extraordinary are two letters concerning the practice, spread, and prosecution of Christianity. Even at this early date, it was clear that the religion could grow rapidly: “In fact, this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread its infection among the neighboring villages and country.”

In sum, I recommend this book to anyone and everyone interested in ancient Rome. The letters are at once a model of style and a window into the past. Few books offer so much insight and pleasure for such little drudgery.

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Review: Gotham

Review: Gotham
Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Time is not a carousel on which we might, next time round, snatch the brass ring by being better prepared.

When I began this book, I thought that I would speed through it in a summer month of dedicated reading, while there was little else to distract me. Yet after four weeks of slogging I had not even gotten a third of the way through. Worse still, I never felt fully engaged; every time I returned to the book it required an act of will; the pace never picked up, the writing never become effortlessly pleasurable. So I put it aside, to finish at the end of summer. When that didn’t work, I put it aside, to finish during Christmas break. And when that didn’t work, I bought the audiobook, to finish the remaining chapters on my runs. Now, 261 days later, I can finally tick it off my list.

Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace set an ambitious goal: to write an authoritative, comprehensive, and accessible history of New York City. In their words, they want to include “sex and sewer systems, finance and architecture, immigration and politics, poetry and crime,” and that list is only the beginning. The amount of research required to assemble this vast and teetering edifice of knowledge is almost nauseating. When you consider that this book, heavy enough to serve as a deadly weapon, is the condensed version of thousands of smaller books, dissertations, papers, and studies, you cannot help but feel admiration for the many hours of sweat and toil that went into this pharaonic task. And in the end they have accomplished at least two of their three goals: the book is authoritative and comprehensive. But is it accessible?

This is where my criticism begins. Burrows and Wallace attempt to gather together so many threads of research that the final tapestry is confused and chaotic. In a single chapter they can pivot wildly from one topic to another, going from department stores to race riots to train lines, so that the reader has little to hold on to as they traverse this whirlwind of information. The final product is an assemblage rather than a coherent story, an encyclopedia disguised as a narrative history. Granted, encyclopedias are good and useful things; but they seldom make for compelling reading. What was lacking was a guiding organizational principle. This could have taken the form of a thesis on, say, the way that the city developed; or it could have been a literary device, such as arranging the information around certain historical figures.

Lacking this, what we often get is a list—which, as it happens, is the author’s favorite rhetorical device. To pick an entirely typical sentence, the authors inform us that, in 1828, the Common Council licensed “nearly seven thousand people, including butchers, grocers, tavern keepers, cartmen, hackney coachmen, pawnbrokers, and market clerks, together with platoons of inspectors, weighers, measurers, and gaugers of lumber, lime, coal, and flour.” Now, lists can be wonderful to read if used sparingly and assembled with care—just ask Rabelais. But overused, they become tedious and exhausting.

This is indicative of what is a more general fault of the book, the lack of authorial personality in its prose. Perhaps this is because Burrows and Wallace edited and rewrote each other’s chapters, creating a kind of anonymous hybrid author. Now, this is not to say that the prose is bad; to the contrary, I think that this book is consistently well-written. If the book is dry, it is not because of any lack of writerly skill, but because the prose limits itself to recounting fact rather than expressing opinion or thought. Again, the book is an encyclopedia without the alphabetical order, and encyclopedias are not supposed to contain any speck of subjectivity. Unfortunately, even the most masterly prose is dead on the page if there is no discernable person behind it.

I am being rather critical of a book which, without a doubt, is a triumph of synthesis and scholarship. If I am disappointed, it is because I felt that I could have retained much more of the information in these pages had it been presented with more coherence—a larger perspective, a sense of overall order, an underpinning structure. As it stands, I do not have that satisfying (if, perhaps, untrustworthy) feeling that an excellent history can provide: that of seeing the past from a high perspective, as a grand and logical unfolding. Though not exactly fair, I cannot help comparing Gotham unfavorably with another massive book about the history of the city, The Power Broker, which forever changed how I look at the city and, indeed, at the nature of power itself. Yet after finishing this, I am not sure if my perspective on the city has been appreciably changed.

But I should end on a positive note. This is a well-written, exhaustive, and thoroughly impressive history of the city. And despite all my complaints and headaches, I liked it enough so that I will, someday, drag myself through its sequel.



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Review: The Copernican Revolution

Review: The Copernican Revolution
The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought

The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought by Thomas S. Kuhn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are few phrases more annoying or more effective than “I told you so.”

This is my second encounter with Thomas Kuhn, and again I emerge deeply impressed. To do justice to an event so multifaceted as the Copernican Revolution a scholar must have a flexible mind; and Kuhn is fully equal to the task. He moves seamlessly from scientific data, to philosophical analysis, to historical context, and then back again. The result is a book that serves as an admirable introduction to the basics of astronomy and a thorough overview of the Copernican Revolution, while raising intriguing questions about the nature of scientific progress.

Kuhn first makes an essential point: that the conceptual schemes of science serve both a logical and a psychological function. Their logical function is to economically organize the data (in this case, the position and movement of heavenly objects); their psychological function is to make people feel at home in the universe. Belief is only necessary for this second function. A scientist can use a conceptual scheme perfectly well without believing that it represents how the universe ‘truly is’; but people have an obvious and, apparently, near-universal need to understand their place in, and relation to, the cosmos. Thus, scientists throughout history have insisted on the truth of their systems, despite the history science being littered with the refuse of abandoned theories (to use Kuhn’s expression). Even if this belief cannot be justified philosophically, however, it does provide a powerful emotional impetus to scientific activity.

Another question Kuhn raises is when and why scientists decide that an old paradigm is unsustainable and a new one is required. For centuries astronomers in the Muslim and Western worlds worked within the basic approach laid down by Ptolemy, hoping that small adjustments could finally remove the slight errors inherent in the system. During this time, the flexibility of the Ptolemaic approach—allowing for fine-tuning in deferents, equants, and epicycles—was seen as one of its strengths. Besides, the Ptolemaic astronomy was fully integrated within the wider Aristotelian science of the age; and this science blended perfectly with common everyday notions. The fact that the Ptolemaic science broke down is attributable as much, or more, to factors external to the science as to those internal to it. Specifically, with the Renaissance came the rediscovery of Neoplatonism, with its emphasis on mathematical harmonies—something absent from Aristotelianism—as well as its strain of sun-worship.

Copernicus was one of those affected by the new current of Neoplatonism; and it is this, Kuhn argues, that ultimately made him dissatisfied with the Ptolemaic system and apt to place the sun at the center of his system. We often hear of science progressing as a result of new experiments and empirical discoveries; but no such novel observation played a role in Copernicus’s innovation. Rather, the source of Copernicus’s rejection of an earth-centered universe was its inability to explain why the planets’ orbits are related to the sun’s. His system answered that question. But this was only an aesthetic improvement. It did not lead to more accurate predictions—the essential task of astronomy—and, indeed, it did not even lead to more efficient calculations. The oft-reproduced image of the Copernican universe, consisting of seven concentric circles, is a simplification; his actual system used dozens of circles and was cumbersome and difficult to use.

But the most puzzling feature of Copernicus’s innovation is that it achieves qualitative simplification at the expense of rendering it completely incompatible with the wider worldview. Aristotelian physics cannot explain why a person would not fly off of a moving earth. And, indeed, the entire cosmological picture, such as that painted so convincingly by Dante, ceases to make sense in a Copernican universe. For centuries people had understood the earth as a midpoint between the fires of hell and the perfect heavens above. Now, hell was only metaphorically “below” and heaven only metaphorically “above.” Besides that, the universe had to be expanded to mystifying proportions; the earth became only a small and unimportant speck in an unimaginably vast space. Strangely, however, Copernicus seemed blind to most of these consequences of his innovation. A specialist concerned only with creating a harmonious system, his attempt to render it physically plausible or theologically palatable is, at best, half-hearted.

This leads to the irony that one of the greatest intellectual revolutions in history started with a man concerned with technical minutiae inaccessible to the vast majority of the public, who had access to no fundamentally new data, whose system was neither more accurate nor more efficient than its predecessor, and whose main concern was qualitative harmoniousness. Copernicus was no radical and had no notion of upsetting the established authority; he himself would likely have been appalled at the Newtonian universe that was the end result of this process.

Yet this simple innovation, once proposed, had ripple effects. Though the earth’s motion was near universally rejected as a fact, its use in a serious astronomical work kept it alive as an option. And this new option could not be laughed away when, in the next generation under Tycho Brahe, better observations and novel phenomena upset the Ptolemaic world order. The heavens could no longer be seen as perfect and unchanging when Brahe proved that supernovae and comets do not exhibit a parallax (as in, they do not to change location when the observer moves), and thus could not be atmospheric phenomena. Further, Brahe’s unprecedentedly accurate observations of the planets were incompatible with any Ptolemaic system. This seems to be one of many cases in the history of science when novel observations followed, rather than preceded, a theoretical innovation.

Granted, this incongruence led Brahe to propose his own earth-centered system, the Tychonic, rather than adopt a sun-centered universe. But this new system used Copernican mathematics, and embodied the Copernican harmonies. In any case it is hard to see how the Tychonic system could ever have been anything but a stopgap, since the jump from Ptolemy to Brahe was scarcely easier than the jump from Ptolemy to Copernicus. Besides, it struck many as dynamically implausible that everything in the universe would orbit the sun except the earth and the moon.

Kepler and Galileo were among those unconvinced by the Tychonic system. The two very different men were both of an independent turn of mind, and their work finally made the Copernican universe unequivocally superior. Kepler particularly made the decisive step with his three laws: that planets orbit in ellipses with the sun at a foci, that they sweep out equal areas in equal times, and that they orbit the sun in a ratio of the 3/2 power (the orbital axis to the orbital time). But in Kepler we find further ironies. Far from the dispassionate lover of truth, Kepler was a Neoplatonic mystic, bursting with occult hypotheses. Many parts of his work strike the modern reader as scarcely more rational than the ravings of a conspiracy theorist. Yet the hard core of Kepler’s astronomical work lifted Copernicanism into a league of its own for accuracy of prediction and efficiency of calculation. If the orbits of the planets were related to the sun in such simple, elegant ways, it was difficult to see how earth could be at the center of it all.

This is my best attempt at summarizing the most salient points of the book. But of course there is far more in here, most of it worthwhile. I particularly enjoyed Kuhn’s chapter on the oft-ignored medieval research into physics, such as the impetus theory in the work of Nicole Oresme. The only weak point of the book was the rather brief epilogue to Copernicus. In particular, I would have appreciated an entire chapter devoted to Newton, since it was his Principia that was, in Kuhn’s phrase, the “capstone” of the revolution. But on the whole I think this is a superlative book, serious yet accessible, informative while brief. Kuhn captures the reality of scientific progress, which is far less neat that we may like to believe. Most striking is how a revolution which was guided by many extra-logical considerations—the Neoplatonic belief in celestial harmonies, the desire for mathematical elegance, the weakening of the religious worldview, the need to feel at home in the universe—fueled a process which, taken as a whole, resulted in a science definitively better than the Ptolemaic system it replaced.

Kuhn makes no mistake about this. Here is what the reputed relativist has to say:

The last two and one-half centuries have proved that the conception of the universe which emerged from the Revolution was a far more powerful intellectual tool than the universe of Aristotle and Ptolemy. The scientific cosmology evolved by seventeenth-century scientists and the concepts of space, force, and matter that underlay it, accounted for both celestial and terrestrial motions with a precision undreamed of in antiquity. In addition, they guided many novel and immensely fruitful research programs, disclosing a host of previously unsuspected natural phenomena and revealing order in fields of experience that had been intractable to men governed by the ancient world view.

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Review: The Age of Napoleon

Review: The Age of Napoleon
The Age of Napoleon (The Story of Civilization, #11)

The Age of Napoleon by Will Durant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finally I have come to the last book in this series. It was four long years ago when I first read The Life of Greece; and these have been the four most educational years of my life, in part thanks to The Story of Civilization. Though I have had some occasions to criticize Durant over the years, the fact that I have dragged myself through ten lengthy volumes of his writing is compliment enough. Now all I need to do is to read the first volume of the series, Our Oriental Heritage, in order to bring my voyage to its end. (I originally skipped it because it struck me as absurd to squeeze all of Asia into one volume and then cover Europe in ten; but for the sake of completion I suppose I will have to read it.)

Durant did not plan to write this volume. His previous book, Rousseau and Revolution, ends with a final bow. But Durant lived longer than he anticipated (he died at 96), so he decided to devote his final years to a bonus book on Napoleon. It is extraordinarily impressive that he and his wife, Ariel, could have maintained the same high standard of writing for so many decades; there is no notable decline in quality in this volume, which makes me think that Durant should have written a book on healthy living, too.

The Age of Napoleon displays all of Durant’s typical merits and faults. The book begins with a bust: Durant rushes through the French Revolution, seeming bored by the whole affair, seeing the grand drama only as a disruptive prelude to Napoleon. This showcases Durant’s inability to write engagingly about processes and events; when there is no central actor on which to focus his attention, the writing becomes colorless and vague. Further, it also shows that Durant, while a strong writer, was a weak historian: he provides very little analysis or commentary on what is one of the most important and influential events in European history.

When Napoleon enters the scene, the book becomes appreciably more lively. For reasons that largely escape me, Durant was an unabashed admirer of the diminutive general, and sees in Napoleon an example of the farthest limits of human ability. Though normally uninterested in the details of battles and campaigns, Durant reveals a heretofore hidden talent for military narration as he covers Napoleon’s military triumphs and defeats. Some parts of the book, particularly near the end, are genuinely thrilling—an adjective that rarely comes to mind with Durant’s staid and steady style. Granted, he had an extraordinary story to tell; Napoleon’s rise, fall, rise again, and fall again are as epic as anything in Plutarch.

But as usual Durant shines most brightly in his sections on artists, poets, and philosophers. The greatest section of this book is that on the Romantic poets: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Byron. (For some reason, Durant sees fit to exclude Keats, even though the scope of Keats’ life falls entirely within that of Napoleon.) Less engaging, though still worthwhile, was Durant’s section on the German idealist philosophers; and his miniature biography of Beethoven was a stirring tribute. Many writers who properly belong in this volume were, however, paid their respects in the previous, most notably Goya and Goethe, since Durant thought that this volume would never appear.

Though I am happy to reach the end, I am saddened that I cannot continue the story of Europe’s history any further forward with Durant. He is an inspiring guide to the continent’s cultural treasures.



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Review: 1491

Review: 1491

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I should begin by saying that this book is not what I expected, which necessarily entails some disappointment. I was hoping for a more in-depth look at the major pre-Columbian societies and cultures. What this book instead offers is a sort of overview of trends in research in this area, highlighting how these trends contradict the popular image of the Americas before European colonization. This is, of course, also a valuable and worthwhile topic—and, considering the book’s popularity, many have found it to be so—but I nevertheless must admit that, after putting down the book, I still have only a hazy notion of the actual cultures in question.

Mann sets himself to undermine the popular notion of scattered groups of savages in a pristine, ahistorical paradise, living lightly off the land in a perfect harmony with nature. He sets out to show that, first, there were orders of magnitude more people in the Americas than was originally suspected; second, that humans arrived in the Americas far earlier than previously thought; and third, that pre-Colombian societies radically altered their environment. The picture that emerges is of a continent teeming with complex civilizations, each one manipulating the world around them in unique ways.

Due to the limited and often indirect evidence available to researchers, and the comparatively nascent state of the field, Mann is unable to give a textbook-like overview of pre-Colombian societies. Our knowledge is simply too fragmentary; there are too many scholarly disagreements. He instead chooses to focus on individual scholars and their lines of research, showing how these converge to suggest the aforementioned new conclusions. The advantage to this method is that his narrative is enlivened with the stories of real research; and it also allows Mann to give a more realistic impression of the state of our knowledge. But the disadvantage is that this book often reads like an extended Nat Geo article—the report of a journalist tagging along on research expeditions—rather than the bird’s-eye view I was hoping for.

Another major drawback is that, by focusing on pioneering research, Mann is unable to give answers that are wholly satisfying, since the field itself has not yet reached a stable consensus. The research he relies on for his section on pre-Colombian population, for example, uses a combination of indirect evidence and simple speculation. Granted, I was convinced even before opening this book that European diseases caused significant depopulation after first contact. But whether the fatality rate was as high as 90%, as he suggests, is difficult to accept without more decisive evidence. Personally I find it hard to believe that one-fifth of the global population (to use his figure) could die off without leaving a far less ambiguous archeological trace.

That the research is in this state is not, of course, Mann’s fault; yet he is not merely reporting the results of different experts in the field, but choosing those whose research most strongly supports this book’s thesis. This put me naturally on guard, since I know from my brief time studying archaeology how varied scholarly opinion can be in a field where evidence is necessarily scanty, incomplete, and suggestive. This being said, I do want to emphasize that I was convinced of Mann’s major points; it was only the details that put me in a dubious state of mind.

Mann’s habit of focusing on the research that most forcefully bolsters his conclusions is part of a more general tendency to overstate his case. For example, I find it difficult to accept Mann’s assertion that the first generation of European colonists did not have a decisive military advantage over their American counterparts (which supports the thesis that disease was the decisive factor in the conquest). Steel blades, guns, and mounted cavalry were all landmarks in military technology in Eurasia, so I do not see why they would not lend an advantage in this context. I also could not swallow Mann’s argument that American Indian cultures played such a decisive role in the emergence of Western liberalism and individualism. Now, I have little doubt that the example of egalitarian, non-coercive societies did play a role in this development; but Mann makes it seem as if Locke, Montesquieu, and Voltaire were reliant on this example.

But I should stop nitpicking a book which is thoughtful, well-written, well-researched, and which dispels many obsolete myths. And, really, it is my fault for choosing a book on new revelations, when I really wanted to learn more about the religion, art, architecture, and science of these vanished civilizations.

(I should note one error I caught. Mann says that the Spanish missionary Gaspar de Carvajal was born “in the Spanish town of Extremadura.” But Extremadura is region, or an autonomous community, not a town; Carvajal was born in Trujillo, which is indeed in Extremadura.)

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Review: Two New Sciences

Review: Two New Sciences

Two New Sciences/A History of Free FallTwo New Sciences/A History of Free Fall by Galileo Galilei

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

But in what seas are we inadvertently engulfing ourselves, bit by bit? Among voids, infinities, indivisibles, and instantaneous movements, shall we ever be able to reach harbor even after a thousand discussions?

When most people think about the Copernican revolution, the name that comes most readily to mind—more even than that of Copernicus himself—is that of Galileo Galilei. It was he, after all, who fought most valiantly for the acceptance of the theory, and it was he who suffered the most for it—narrowly escaping the tortures of the Inquisition. It was also Galileo who wrote the most famous book to come out of the revolution: Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, whose publication most directly resulted in Galileo’s punishment.

Some years ago I read and admired that eloquent work. But lately, after slogging my way through Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Kepler, I have come to look upon Galileo’s famous dialogue with more suspicion. For it was only through the work of Kepler that the Copernican system became unquestionably more efficient than the Ptolemaic as a method of calculating celestial movements; and though Kepler was a contemporary and a correspondent of Galileo, the Italian scientist was not aware of the German’s groundbreaking innovations. Thus the version of heliocentrism that Galileo defends is Copernicus’s original system, preserving much of the cumbrous aspects of Ptolemy—epicycles, perfect circles, and separate tables for longitude and latitude, etc.

Added to this, the most decisive advantages in favor of Copernicus’s system over Ptolemy’s—explaining why the planets’ orbits seem related to the sun’s—are given little prominence, if they are even mentioned. Clearly, a rigorous defense of Copernicanism would require a demonstration that it made calculating heavenly positions easier and more accurate; but there is nothing of the kind in Galileo’s dialogue. As a result, Galileo comes across as a propagandist rather than a scientist. But of course, even if his famous dialogue was pure publicity, Galileo would have a secure place in the annals of astronomy from his observations through his improved telescope: of the lunar surface, of the moons of Jupiter, of the rings of Saturn, of sunspots, and of the phases of Venus. But I doubt this would be enough to earn him his reputation as a cornerstone of the scientific revolution.

This book provides the answer. Here is Galileo’s real scientific masterpiece—one of the most important treatises on mechanics in history. Rather inconveniently, its title is easy to confuse with Galileo’s more famous dialogue; but in content Two New Sciences is an infinitely more serious work than Two Chief World Systems. It is also a far less impassioned work, since Galileo wrote it when he was an old man under house arrest, not a younger man in battle with the Catholic authorities. This inevitably makes the book rather more boring to read; yet even here, Galileo’s lucid style is orders of magnitude more pleasant than, say, Kepler’s or Ptolemy’s.

As in Two Chief World Systems, the format is a dialogue between Simplicio, Sagredo, and Salviati (though Galileo cheats by having Salviati read from his manuscript). Unlike the earlier dialogue, however, Simplicio is not engaged in providing counter-arguments or in defending Aristotle; he mostly just asks clarifying questions. Thus the dialogue format only serves to enliven a straightforward exposition of Galileo’s views, not to simulate a debate.

The book begins by asking why structures cannot be scaled up or down without changing their properties. Why, for example, will a small boat hold together if slid down a ramp, but a larger boat fall to pieces? Why does a horse break its leg it falls down, but a cat can fall from the same distance entirely uninjured? Why are the bones of an elephant proportionately so much squatter and fatter than the bones of a mouse? In biology this is known as the science of allometry, and personally I find it fascinating. The key is that, when increasing size, the ratio of volume to area also increases; thus an elephant’s bones must support far more weight, proportionally, than a mouse’s. As a result, inventors and engineers cannot just scale up contraptions without providing additional support—quite a counter-intuitive idea at the time.

Galileo next delves into infinities. This leads him into what is called “Galileo’s paradox,” but is actually one of the defining properties of infinite sets. This states that the parts of an infinite set can be equal to the whole set; or in other words, they can both be infinite. For example, though the number of integers with a perfect square root (4, 9, 16…) will be fewer than the total number of integers in any finite set (say, from 1-100), in the set of all integers there is an infinite number of integers with a perfect square roots; thus the part is equal to the whole. Galileo also takes a crack at Aristotle’s wheel paradox. This is rather dull to explain; but suffice to say it involves the simultaneous rotation of rigid, concentric circles. Galileo attempts to solve it by postulating an infinite number if infinitesimal voids in the smaller circle, and in fact uses this as evidence for his theory of infinitesimals.

As a solution to the paradox, this metaphysical assertion fails to do justice to its mathematical nature. However, the concept of infinitely small instants does help to escape from of the Zeno-like paradoxes of motion, to which Greek mathematics was prone. For example, if you imagine an decelerating object spending any finite amount of time at any definite speed, you will see that it never comes to a full stop: the first second it will travel one meter, the next second only half a meter, the next second a quarter of a meter, and so on ad infinitum. The notion of deceleration taking places continuously over an infinite number of infinitely small instants helped to escape this dilemma (though it is still unexplained how a thing can be said to “move” during an instant).

Galileo had need of such concepts, since he was writing long before Newton’s calculus and too early to be influenced by Descartes’s analytical geometry. Thus the mathematical apparatus of this book is Greek in form. Galileo’s calculations consist exclusively of ratios between lines rather than equations; and he establishes these ratios using Euclid’s familiar proofs. Consequently, his mechanics is relational or relativistic—able to give proportions but not exact quantities.

This did not stop Galileo from anticipating much of Newton’s system. He establishes the pendulum as an exemplar of continually accelerated motion, and shows that pendulums of the same length of rope swing at the same rate, regardless of the height from which they fall. He asserts that an object, once started in motion, would continue in motion indefinitely were it not for friction and air resistance. He recounts experiments of dropping objects of different masses from the same distance, and seeing them land at the same moment, thus disproving the Aristotelian assertion that objects fall with a speed proportional to their mass. (Unfortunately, there is scant evidence for the story that Galileo performed this experiment from the Leaning Tower of Pisa.) Galileo also makes the daring asserting that, in a vacuum, all objects would fall at the same rate.

There are still more riches to be excavated. Galileo asserts that pitches are caused by vibrating air, that faster vibrations causes higher pitch, and that consonant harmonies are caused by vibrations in regular ratios. He exhaustively calculates how the time and speed of a descending object would differ based on its angle of descent—straight down or on an inclined plane. He also shows that objects shot into the air, as in a catapult, descend back to earth in a parabolic arc; and he shows that objects travel the furthest when shot at 45 degrees. In an appendix, Galileo uses an iterative approach to find the center of gravity of curved solids; and in an added dialogue he discusses the force of percussion.

As you can see, this book is too rich and, in parts, too technical for me to appraise it in detail. I will say, however, that of all the scientific classics I have read this year, the modern spirit of science shines through most clearly in these pages. For like any contemporary scientist, Galileo assumes that the behavior of nature is law-like, and is fundamentally mathematical; and with Galileo we also see a thinker completely willing to submit his speculations to experiment, but completely unwilling to submit them to authority. Far more than in the metaphysical Kepler—who speculated with wild abandon, though he was a scientist of comparable importance—in Galileo we find a true skeptic: who believed only what he could observe, calculate, and prove. The reader instantly feels, in Galileo, the force of an exceptionally clear mind and of an uncompromising dedication to the search for truth.

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Review: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Review: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American WestBury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those books whose great merit was in undermining itself. When it was first published, in 1970, it must have been a shock to the Americans who grew up reading and watching movies about the heroic coy boys, settlers, and soldiers who settled the West. It was—and to an extent, remains—a key part of our national myth. But like so many national myths, it left unnoticed the people who were repressed, marginalized, or exterminated on the road to the country’s greatness. Books like this one, a people’s history, told from the perspective of the vanquished, are a necessary corrective to this, and perform an important moral function in our society: shining a light on the misdeed perpetrated by our national heroes.

The greatest testament to the success of a book of this type is to render itself obsolete, and I think this is what has happened in this case—at least, to an extent. For by the time I went to school it was the Dee Brown version of the West, not the Buffalo Bill version, that was taught to us. (Admittedly this must vary a lot depending on where you go to school; I come from quite a liberal area.) Thus the story told in these pages was, however depressing, entirely familiar: broken promises, cultural misunderstandings, blatant dishonesty, and wholesale slaughter. As a result I admit I did not enjoy this book as much as I expected, for everything that Brown narrated was fully expected. Of course, there were moments that pierced through even my dullness, such as the description of the Sand Creek Massacre, which was as horrible as anything I have read about the Holocaust.

Brown is a strong writer, and evokes people and scenes with the power of a good novelist. But I was disappointed at how much of this book is given over to descriptions of battles and skirmishes. The pattern was always the same: the Indians are promised land, the whites decide they want the land after all, tension escalates, and then conflict ensues—with the American military usually coming out the victor. I think it was important that Brown narrate this fighting from the other perspective, since it formed such a cherished part of our myth, but apart from sheer drama I did get much out of it. I would much have preferred that Brown dedicate space to the customs of the groups he is describing—the Navajo, the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Arapaho, and many more. Without this, we get a sense of brave cultures being swept away, but not a sense of what was actually lost.

A few more criticisms come to mind. Though this book is well-researched and well-sourced, it is clear even at a superficial reading that Brown has imaginatively embellished quite a bit in order to get the novelistic style he was after. More importantly, now that we are (hopefully) moving past this Spaghetti-Western version of American history, I believe a different kind of book is needed. Any book that tells the story exclusively from one side, either victor or vanquished, will leave important parts of the story out. Apart from more ethnographic description of the American Indians in question, I would also have liked a much deeper analysis of the government and settlers. This would have given more insight into why these interactions played out the way they did.

But these criticisms are somewhat unfair, since they are predicated on the book’s success. Without a doubt this was a necessary book, and Brown did us a service in writing it—and in writing it so well.

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