Review: The Red and the Black

Review: The Red and the Black
The Red and the Black

The Red and the Black by Stendhal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Good heavens! Is being happy, is being loved no more than that?

Few books have so totally engrossed me as this French novel written nearly two hundred years ago. Stendhal has aged very well. The novel is just fun to read: with short chapters, simple prose, and a plot that keeps the reader constantly wondering. That the novel was not widely appreciated during Stendhal’s own lifetime shows how much literary taste has changed. Whether this change has been for the better is difficult to say. But at least we can now appreciate Stendhal’s masterpiece.

For me, Stendhal’s signature effect is the interplay of Romantic idealism and deflating realism. Like his contemporary Balzac, Stendhal catches the world in his net. Every character, scene, and situation is carefully realistic. Though hardly a political novel, Stendhal succeeds in painting a subtle and compelling portrait of his age—the dynamic between the provinces and Paris, the political clashes between liberals and royalists, the relationship between the peasants, the clergy, and the old aristocracy. His characters, while individual, are also recognizable types, which he uses to dissect and analyze the social realities of his age.

Yet acting as a great counterweight to the ballast of detail is Stendhal’s famous psychological acuteness. This turns what would potentially be a dated social study into a gripping story of universal import. For his protagonist, Stendhal creates Julien Sorel—passionate, brilliant, stubborn, naïve, calculating, ambitious, and manifestly unfit for his social station.

Stendhal, a liberal himself, could easily have written a kind of morality tale about what happens when a man of great gifts is born in the lower ranks of society, with hardly any legitimate way of advancing. This is indeed Julien Sorel’s position. This morality tale would show us a good-hearted man, doing his best to be recognized for his genius, but overcome by circumstances. Yet Julien is infinitely more interesting for being both flawed and devious. Stendhal does not only show us how society makes his lot difficult, but, far more subtly, shows us how society deforms his psyche.

Deprived of any external encouragement, Julien’s motivation must come from worldly ambition and an egoistic pride. Since his only path to advancement is through people he despises—the clergy and the aristocracy—Julien must be dishonest, hypocritical, and ever-cautious. Forced to suppress his own emotions so constantly, and forced so frequently to act against his inclinations, whenever Julien is given a taste of kindness, love, or happiness, he loses control and threatens to undo all that his calculating subtlety had accomplished.

This psychological portrait is so perfectly realized that we both sympathize with, root for, and yet see through Julien Sorel. He is extraordinary, and yet painfully limited by his surroundings. His tragedy is that circumstances deprived the world of what he could have been had he been born in a different time and place. That Stendhal could create, at the same time, a universal morality tale, a realistic sketch of society, a vivid psychological study, and a thrilling novel—complete with a burning love story—all in the simplest prose, is a testament to the author’s high art.



View all my reviews

Review: The Myth of Sisyphus

Review: The Myth of Sisyphus
The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I still vividly remember my writing class in my first semester of college. Our professor was a lover of paradoxes. She had us read Kafka and Borges, whom none of us could understand. And she had a habit of asking impossible questions—such as “What does it mean to be infinitely finite?”—and savoring the uncomfortable silences that followed. Once, she even scared us half to death by asking one of these questions, and than yelping like a banshee half a minute later. Quite a good professor.

The final section of this iconic essay was among the readings she had us read. Of course I did not understand a word of it. I was no where near mature enough to wrap my mind around the idea of absurdism. The “meaning of life” was not a problem for me at that time. Surrounded as I was by thousands of potential friends and girlfriends—free for the first time in my life to do as I pleased—such a confrontation with nihilism was beyond the horizons of my mental life.

This was not the case four years later, when I graduated college with thousands of dollars in debt, confronted with the possibility of deciding “Who I Wanted to Be.” Probably I should have read this book at that time, when I could so keenly feel the weight of life’s pointlessness. Or maybe I should have read it a year later, when I was working in an office job. Humankind has seldom plunged deeper into the void than in entry-level positions.

I mention this biographical background because I think this book should likely not be read during a time of relative stability and contentedness, such as I am in now. We seldom pause to ponder the “meaning of life” when we are enjoying ourselves. The problem of “philosophical suicide” is not a problem at all on beautiful summer days. It is only a problem on cold, rainy Tuesday nights, in the few minutes of mental calm between work, chores, sleep, and work the next day. Unfortunately, such Tuesdays come all too often in this world of ours.

My point is simply that I would have enjoyed this essay far more under more propitious circumstances. Albert Camus’s style is well-calculated to please: a winsome mixture of anecdote, philosophy, literary criticism, and poetry. Certainly it is a relief after dragging my way through Sartre’s tortured syntax and cumbersome verbiage. Camus, by contrast, is concise and stylish. My only reservation is that, for all his accessibility, Camus is not perfectly clear. I say this from the perspective of somebody trying to read his essay as a philosophical work. All philosophy consists in argument; and in order to accept or reject an argument, one must use clearly defined terms. With Camus, however, I was never quite sure what his criteria were for considering something absurd or meaningful—his two central categories.

This is perhaps the wrong way to read Camus. What he was trying to create was arguably more in the tradition of wisdom literature than formal philosophy. From this perspective, the essay is somewhat more satisfying. However, here too I found Camus somewhat lacking. One extracts more piquant lessons in the art of life from Montaigne or La Rochefoucauld than from Camus. Where Camus excels these authors is not in wisdom per se, but in capturing a certain mood, a mood peculiar to modern times: being intellectually and spiritually adrift. After all of the traditional systems belief which underpinned life have crumbled, it is the crushing realization that one is unable to justify anything, even life itself. In this peculiar vein, Camus is difficult to beat.

Even so, I wonder if this iconic essay adds anything essential to that famous remark of Pascal: “Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” Camus’s Sisyphus is the twin brother of Pascal’s thinking reed—the plaything of an indifferent universe, and yet dignified by his consciousness. In his more despairing moments, Pascal may have been quite as horrified by the vast spectacle of an indifferent cosmos as Camus: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” The essential difference between these two men is not their realization of humanity’s insignificance, but their reactions. Pascal seeks to escape this conclusion any way he can, bolstering his faith with every fallacious argument under the sun. Camus was innovative in his insistence that we must calmly accept this situation, taking it as a starting point and not as a depressing conclusion.

My main criticism with this essay is that, if life has no inherent meaning, and the universe is nothing but a cold expanse, this throws the question of the “meaning of life” back upon each individual. Answering that question definitively, for every person, becomes de facto impossible. But, again, perhaps Camus is not trying to prove anything universal. Rather, his essay is a sort of invitation to abandon the traditional justifications of life, and to focus, as Camus himself did, on the smaller joys—sunlight, the sea, travel. The rest of the essays in this collection may be seen in that light, as enlarging upon Camus’s omnivorous curiosity for his surroundings.

What bothers me is that I do not agree with Camus’s opening assertion: I do not think the most pressing question is whether we should all just commit suicide. To the contrary, once this question is decided in the negative, it opens up a world of far more interesting issues.



View all my reviews

Review: Coriolanus

Review: Coriolanus

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In my review of Plutarch’s Lives, I noted the stark difference between that ancient author’s conception of personality, and our own. For Plutarch, character was static and definable—an essence that is manifested in every decision and remark of a given person. Compare this with Montaigne’s or Shakespeare’s portrayal of personality: fluctuating, contradictory, infinitely deep, and ever fugitive. To borrow a metaphor from Oswald Spengler, the Plutarchian self is statuesque, while the Shakespearian self is more like a work of music. The first is a self-contained whole, while the second is abstract, fleeting, and morphs through time.

It is fascinating, therefore, to see Shakespeare handle a story right out of Plutarch. Shakespeare adapts his art to the subject-matter, and creates a character in Caius Marcius Coriolanus that is remarkably opaque. I say “remarkably” because Shakespeare had just finished with his five greatest tragedies, each of which has a character notable for its depth. Caius Marcius, by contrast, is a man almost in the Plutarchian mode: with a enumerable list of vices and virtues, who acts and speaks predictably, with little self-reflection. Next to Hamlet, Iago, or Macbeth, the Roman general seems almost childlike in his restriction.

Like Julius Caesar, this play is interesting for a certain amount of moral ambiguity. It is difficult to side with any of the major players. The plebeians of Rome are certainly not a mindless rabble, but they are somewhat vain and narrow-minded, not to mention easily influenced by empty words. Coriolanus himself is a superb soldier but ill-suited to anything else, whose capital vice is not exactly pride, but a certain smallness of mind. His mother, Volumnia, is scarcely less warlike than her son. Even if her counsels are good, it is difficult to see the mother-son relationship as perfectly healthy. She comes across, rather, as a kind of Roman helicopter mom, bringing up her son to be a killing machine for the glory of the state.

For me, the tragedy was not quite successful, simply because Coriolanus was such an unsympathetic protagonist—belligerent, scornful, reactionary, and often a great fool. It is a testament to Shakespeare’s art that he is not altogether hateful. As Harold Bloom says, this play is technically brilliant: in its pacing, language, and plotting. Shakespeare was certainly a professional. But if you come to Shakespeare seeking grand personalities, the work is a barren field.



View all my reviews

Review: Fortunata y Jacinta

Review: Fortunata y Jacinta
Fortunata y Jacinta

Fortunata y Jacinta by Benito Pérez Galdós

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Evil breeds, and the good are annihilated in sterility.

Here is a real masterpiece of Spanish literature, one of the seemingly endless landmark novels of the nineteenth century. Benito Pérez Galdós, an intensely prolific author by any standard, cranked out this enormous work in two year’s time. This was a long time for Galdós. The vast bulk of Galdós’s dozens of other novels are not even half as long as this work, and many are not even a quarter in length. He went to such lengths because his creative ambition had been spurred on by the publication of Leopoldo Alas’s La Regenta, another enormous novel, in 1885. By 1887, Galdós was ready with his reply: this book.

As the title indicates, the story is basically a love triangle, consisting of the respectable Jacinta, the poor Fortunata, and the privileged cad, Juanito Santa Cruz (called “el Delfín”). The main outline of the story is familiar: Santa Cruz marries the wealthy Jacinta, but has a dalliance with the lowly but beautiful Fortunata. Scandal ensues. This could easily be a trite and uninteresting story. Yet Galdós turns this basic plot into a lens, focused on the middle-class life in Madrid. Galdós documents this life with extraordinary finesse. We meet so many different sorts of people—pharmacists, priests, saintly nuns, military men, café intellectuals, chatty maids, arrogant housewives—each of them with their own quirks of speech and their own peculiar forms of mild insanity. It is a thorough and relentless dissection.

Galdós’s portrait of this world is not flattering. Like so many novels of this time, the plot focuses on the impossible plight of women. But Galdós is quite different from any of his English, French, or even Russian counterparts in his remarkable frankness. He is merciless in portraying the moral hypocrisy of this world, which basically leaves no option open for happiness to the lowly Fortunata. Here there are no dramatic heroes who fight duels, no heroines who throw themselves in front of trains or swallow poison. Instead Galdós gives us the crushing weight of custom, slowly grinding down the characters trying to navigate the morally bankrupt social conventions. In this way, the novel is rather more frightening than the operatic stories of Dickens, Tolstoy, or Flaubert—since it requires no suspension of belief to be believed.

Casting about for a comparison, the writer closest in style may be the great realist, Balzac. Galdós is also a realist of a high order. His endlessly animated prose is heavy with quotidian detail, making every scene photographically vivid. This also makes his novel feel rather modern and easy to read. There are no philosophical asides or extended descriptions of scenery: just action. In fact, if there is one main shortcoming of this book, it is that there is simply too much of it. Galdós is brilliant in the small scale; but at times one feels that he has been carried away with his loving portrayals of various Spanish types, his fascination with certain mannerisms, or his obsession with extreme realism. There are times that one wishes the book to swell into a crescendo, but Galdós stays at a steady volume.

The real star of this book is, undoubtedly, Fortunata. The title notwithstanding, Jacinta disappears for much of the story, only really the protagonist during the first quarter. The shameless lover, Santa Cruz, is also surprisingly absent from these pages. Jacinta and her unfaithful husband serve as the background for the tragedy of Fortunata, an unfortunate woman of high spirit and deep passion—a woman who, in other circumstances, could have become a saint, but whose actual circumstances forced her to become a scandal. Sharing in her tragedy is Maximiliano Rubín, a well-meaning, idealistic, and extremely naïve young medical student who falls in love with Fortunata. He, too, may have become a saint, if not for the ridiculous ideas of female honor holding sway at that time.

As the openning quote shows, a major theme of this work is fertility and sterility. Jacinta, the faultlessly faithful wife, is unable to have children; Rubín, the idealist obsessed with honor, is also sterile. Only Fortunata, the disgraced woman, and Santa Cruz, the philanderer, are capable of bringing life into the world. I cannot help but be reminded of The Departed, wherein only the good men can father children. The situation in Galdós’s novel is ostensibly the reverse. His point, however, is not that evil is somehow more fecund, but that the societal conventions of marriage virtually guarantee that people end up in disfunctional marriages (with divorce illegal, of course). It is society itself, then, that is sterile, and this respectable society would implode if not for the constant breaking of its social code—moral lapses that are ignored or excused in the men and ruthlessly punished in the women.

It is a brilliant metaphor, in a brilliant book briming over with vitality. Certainly the novel is too long and, at times, messy and rambling. But as a portrait of life at this time, it can hardly be surpassed; and as a portrayal of societal hypocrisy, it is definitive.



View all my reviews

Review: The History of Ancient Egypt

Review: The History of Ancient Egypt
The History of Ancient Egypt

The History of Ancient Egypt by Bob Brier

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ancient Egypt, like dinosaur bones and outer space, is one of those things which seem to attract universal curiosity. It certainly did in my case. I remember visiting the Egyptian section in the Met, as a young boy, and marveling over the mummies and the massive sarcophagi, the mysterious hieroglyphs and monumental statues.

There is something curiously foreign, even inhuman, about Egyptian artifacts. For one, they are old beyond anything we are accustomed to think about. To cite one oft-repeated fact, there is more time between construction the Great Pyramid and the life of Julius Caesar, than between Julius Caesar and our own time. Even ancient history seems like yesterday by comparison. Aside from mere time, Egypt’s culture is strikingly unlike our own. God-kings who marry their sisters to keep the blood-line pure, mummified bodies interred in graves full of gold, jackal-headed gods and hieroglyphic script—it is alien indeed.

Yet it is beautiful. Egyptian art is undoubtedly one of the great art traditions in the world—as anyone knows who has examined the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin, the seated scribe in Paris, or the statue of Hatshepsut in New York. It is a unified and coherent aesthetic, permeating everything from the smallest objects to the greatest temples, and lasting for thousands of years with only minor change. Even if it is enchanting, however, the art of Egypt also evokes this sensation of distance. Every image is so stylized, every human form is so rigid and unrealistic, every aesthetic choice pre-determined by tradition, that it is difficult to get a sense of real people behind these objects.

This sense of distance, of foreignness, of mystery, is what makes Egypt so exciting to study. (It is also why people talk about ancient aliens.) And Bob Brier is an ideal guide. I have never loved anything or anyone as much as Brier loves Egypt. This enthusiasm is infectious, and makes his series of lectures a real pleasure. He describes how he climbed into the Bent Pyramid—an early, failed attempt to create a pyramid—and how he traveled to the turquoise mines used by Egyptians themselves. He narrates Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt and explains how the Rosetta Stone was translated. He even describes in detail how to make a mummy—and he should know, since he made one himself.

Apart from these entertaining asides, Brier takes the listener through the whole history of Ancient Egypt, from prehistory to the death of Cleopatra. It is a fascinating story, and Brier is a wonderful storyteller. A lifelong resident of the Bronx, his verbal mannerisms may remind one—pleasantly or unpleasantly—of the man in the White House; yet he knows how to dramatize the relevant details enough to make them effortlessly stick in the memory. His love of a good story does lead him astray, at times. For my part, his two lectures on the Biblical stories, Joseph and Exodus, were somewhat too credulous of their veracity. He is similarly generous when it comes to Herodotus. And his theory of Tutankhamun’s murder has now been disproven.

Aside from these mild criticisms, I should note that the series does show its age. Recorded in 1999, lots has happened in the world of Egyptology since then, notably the advances in DNA and medical technology which allow us to know more about the lives of Egyptians. For example, we now know far more about Tutankhamun’s many physical ailments, and we also know that he was not the son of Nefertiti.

Nevertheless, these lectures remain a wonderful introduction to the times. I cannot emphasize enough how enjoyable they are. They convert you into an Egypt fanatic. Now I want teach myself hieroglyphics and to go to Egypt myself. It must be incredible to see all of this in person. For now, however, I will have to be content with Brier’s virtual tour and whatever museums I can visit.



View all my reviews

Review: On the Soul (Aristotle)

Review: On the Soul (Aristotle)
De Anima (On the Soul)

De Anima by Aristotle

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I have lately been making my way through Aristotle’s physical treatises, I have often observed that many of Aristotle’s errors stem from his tendency to see the physical world as analogous to a biological organism. So it is a pleasure to finally see Aristotle back on his home territory—living things. While Aristotle’s work in proto-physics and proto-chemistry is interesting mainly from a historical perspective, this work is interesting in its own right; in just a hundred pages, Aristotle manages to assemble a treatise on the fundamentals of life.

The first thing the modern student will notice is that Aristotle means something quite different by ‘soul’ than how we normally understand the word. The word ‘soul’ has come to mean an immaterial, specter-like wraith, the spiritual core of one’s personality—trapped, only temporarily, in a body; and this view has, over the years, caused problems for philosophers and theologians alike, for it remains to be explained how an immaterial spirit could move a material body, or how a material body could trap an immaterial spirit. Aristotle avoids these awkward questions. What he means is quite different.

Aristotle begins by observing that all forms of behavior, human or animal, require a body. Even supposedly ‘mental’ states, such as anger, love, and desire, all have concomitant physical manifestations: an angry man gets red in the face, a man in love stares at his beloved, and a man who desires alcohol tries to get it. From this, Aristotle quickly concludes that all the Pythagorean and Platonic talk of the transmigration of souls is silly; a soul needs a body, just as a body needs a soul. Furthermore, a specific soul doesn’t need just any body, but it needs its specific body. Soul and body are, in other words, codependent and inseparable. In Aristotle’s words, “each art must use its tools, each soul its body.”

This still leaves the question unanswered, what is a soul? Aristotle answers that the soul is the form of the body. Alright, what does that mean? Keep this in mind: when Aristotle says ‘form’, he is not merely talking about the geometrical shape of the object, but means something far more general: the form, or essence, of something is that by which it is what it is. Here’s an example: the form of a bowl is that which makes a bowl a bowl, as opposed to something else like, say, a plate or a cup. In this particular case, the form would seem to be the mere shape of the object; isn’t the thing that makes a bowl a bowl its shape? But consider that there is no such thing as a disembodied bowl; for a bowl to be a bowl, it must have a certain shape, be within a certain size range, and be embodied in a suitable material. All of these qualifications, the shape, size, and material, Aristotle would include in the ‘form’ of an object.

So the soul of living things is the quality (or qualities) that differentiate them from nonliving things. Now, the main difference between animate and inanimate objects is that animate objects possess capacities; therefore, the more capacities a living thing has, the more souls we must posit. This sounds funny, but it’s just a way of speaking. Plants, for Aristotle, are the simplest forms of living beings; they only possess the ‘vegetative soul’, which is what makes them grow and develop. Animals possess additional souls, such as that which allows them to sense, to desire, to imagine, and—in the case of humans—to think. The ‘soul’, then, is a particular type of form; it is a form which gives its recipient a certain type of capability. Plants are only capable of growth; animals are capable of growing, of moving, and of many other things.

Aristotle sums up his view in a memorable phrase: “From all this it is obvious that the affections of soul are enmattered formulable essences.” These capacities cannot be ‘enmattered’ in just anything, but must be embodied in suitable materials; plants are not made of just anything, but their capacities for growth always manifest themselves in the same types of material. Aristotle sums up this point with another memorable phrase: “soul is an actuality or formulable essence of something that possesses the potentiality of being besouled.”

So an oak tree is made of material with the potentiality of being ‘besouled’, i.e., turned into a living, growing oak tree. Conversely, a life-sized statue of an oak tree made of bronze would still not be an oak tree, even if it shared several aspects of its form with a real oak tree. It isn’t made of the right material, and thus cannot possess the vegetative soul.

I have given a somewhat laborious summary of this because I think it is a very attractive way of looking at living things. It avoids all talk of ‘ghosts in the machine’, and concentrates on what is observable. (I should note, however, that Aristotle thought that ‘mind’, which is the faculty of reason, is immaterial and immortal. Nobody’s perfect.)

I also find Aristotle metaphysical views attractive. True to his doctrine of the golden mean, he places equal emphasis on matter and form. He occupies an interesting middle-ground between the idealism of Plato and the materialism of Democritus. In order for a particular thing to be what it is, it must both have a certain form—which is embodied in, but not reducible to, its matter—and be made of the ‘right’ types of matter. Unlike Plato’s ideals, which reside in a different sphere of reality, existing as perfect essences devoid of matter, Aristotle’s forms are inherent in their objects, and thus are neither immaterial nor simply the matter itself

The treatise ceases to be as interesting as it progresses, but there are a few gems along the way. He moves on to an investigation of the five senses, and, while discussing sight, has a few things to say about light. Aristotle defines light as the quality by which something transparent is transparent; in other words, light is the thing that can be seen through transparent things. I suppose that’s a respectable operational definition. Aristotle also considers the idea that light travels absurd; nothing could go that fast:

Empedocles (and with him all others who used the same forms of expression) was wrong in speaking of light as ‘traveling’ or being at a given moment between the earth and its envelope, its movement being unobservable by us; that view is contrary both to the clear evidence of argument and to the observed facts; if the distance traversed were short, the movement might have been unobservable, but where the distance is from extreme East to extreme West, the draught upon our powers of belief is too great.

Aristotle also has a few interesting things to say about sense:

By a ‘sense’ is meant what has the power of receiving into itself the sensible forms of things without the matter. This must be conceived of as taking place in the way in which a piece of wax takes on the impress of a signet-ring without the iron or gold; we say that what produces the impression is a signet of bronze or gold, but its particular metallic constitution makes no difference: in a similar way the sense is affected by what is colored or flavored or sounding, but it is indifferent what in each case the substance is; what alone matters is what quality is has, i.e. in what ratio its constituents are combined.

So we don’t take in the matter of a bowl through our eyes, but only its form. All of our senses, then, are adapted for observing different aspects of the forms of objects. Thus, Aristotle concludes, all knowledge consists of forms; when we learn about the world, we are mentally reproducing the form of the world in our minds. As he says: “It follows that the soul is analogous to the hand; for as the hand is a tool of tools [i.e. the tool by which we use tools], so the mind is the form of forms [i.e. the form by which we apprehend forms].” (Notice how deftly Aristotle wields his division of everything into matter and form; he uses it to define souls, to define senses, and then to define knowledge. It is characteristic of him to make so much headway with such seemingly simple divisions.)

For a long time, I was perplexed that Aristotle was so influential. I was originally repulsed by his way of thinking, put off by his manner of viewing the world. His works struck me as alternately pedantic, wrongheaded, or obvious. How could he have exerted such a tremendous influence over the Western mind? Now, after reading through much more Aristotle, this is no longer perplexing to me; in fact, I often find myself thinking along his lines, viewing the world through his eyes. It takes, I believe, a lot of exposure in order to really develop a sympathy for Aristotle’s thought; but with its emphasis on balance, on growth, on potentiality, it succeeds in being a very aesthetically compelling (if often incorrect) way of viewing things.

This piece represents, to me, Aristotle at his best. It is a grand synthesis of philosophy and biology, probably not matched until William James’s psychological work. Unlike many gentlemanly philosophers who shut themselves in their studies, trying to explain human behavior purely through introspection, Aristotle’s biologically rooted way of seeing things combines careful observation—of humans and nonhumans alike—with philosophical speculation. It is a shame that only the logic-chopping side of Aristotle was embraced by the medievals, and not his empirical outlook.

View all my reviews

Review: On the Heavens (Aristotle)

Review: On the Heavens (Aristotle)

On the Heavens by Aristotle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is quite a charming little book. In it, one can find the description of an entire way of viewing the natural world. Aristotle moves on from the abstract investigations of the Physics to more concrete questions: Is the earth a sphere or flat? What are the fundamental constituents of matter? Why do some things fall, and some things rise? Is the earth the center of everything? Aristotle’s answers, I’m afraid, have not stood the test of time; such, it appears, is the risk of all science—obsolescence.

The reader is immediately presented with a beautiful piece of Aristotelian reasoning. First, the good philosopher reminds us that “the perfect is naturally prior to the imperfect, and the circle is a perfect thing.” Circular motion, therefore, is more perfect than simple up-and-down motion like we see on earth; and since we do not find bodies whose natural motion is circular on earth, and since nature always strives towards perfection, it follows that there must be bodies not on earth which naturally move in a circular fashion. Again, since none of the earth-bound elements—fire, water, air, and earth—exhibit natural (i.e. unforced) circular motion, it follows that the heavenly bodies must be composed of something different; and this different substance (let us call it aether), since is exhibits the most perfect motion, must be itself perfect.

In Aristotle’s words:

… we may infer with confidence that there is something beyond the bodies that are about us on this earth, different and separate from them; and that the superior glory of its nature is proportionate to its distance from this world of ours.

Everything below the moon must be born and pass away; but the heavenly bodies abide forever in their circular course. Q.E.D.

In his physical investigations, it seems that Aristotle was not especially prescient. For example, he argues against “the Italian philosophers known as the Pythagoreans… At the centre, they say, is fire, and the earth is one of the stars, creating night and day by its circular motion about the centre.” Not so, says Aristotle; the earth is the center. He also argues against Democritus’s atomic theory, which posits the existence of several different types of fundamental particles, which are intermingled with “void,” or empty spaces in between them.

To be fair, Aristotle does think that the earth is round; he even includes an estimation of the earth’s circumference at 400,000 stadia, which is, apparently, somewhere around 40,000 miles. (The current-day estimate is about 24,000 miles.) Aristotle also thinks that “heavy” objects tend toward the earth’s surface; but puzzlingly (for the modern reader), he doesn’t think this has anything to do with the pull of the earth, but instead thinks it has something to do with earth’s position in the center of all things. In his words: “If one were to remove the earth to where the moon now is, the various fragments of earth would each move not towards it but to the place in which it now is.”

Then Aristotle launches into his investigation of the elements. As aforesaid, Aristotle posits four sublunary elements: earth, water, fire, and air. Earth is the heaviest, followed by water, and then air; and fire is the lightest. Aristotle believes that these elements have “natural” motions; they tend toward their proper place. Earth tries to go downward, towards the center of the planet. Fire tries to go upward, towards the stars. Aristotle contrasts this “natural” motion with “unnatural” or “violent” motion, which is motion from an outside source. I can, of course, pick up a piece of earth, thereby thwarting its natural tendency towards its proper place on the ground.

The elements naturally sort themselves into order: we have earth on the bottom, then water floating on top, then the air sitting on the water, and fire above the air. (Where all that fire is, I can’t say.) There are some obvious difficulties with this theory. For example, how can boats float? and birds fly? This leads Aristotle to a very tentative definition of buoyancy, with which he ends the book:

… since there are two factors, the force responsible for the downward motion of the heavy body and the disruption-resisting force of the continuous surface, there must be some ratio between the two. For in proportion as the force applied by the heavy thing towards disruption and division exceeds that which resides in the continuum, the quicker will it force its way down; only if the force of the heavy thing is the weaker, will it ride upon the surface.

The more one reads Aristotle, the more one grasps just how much his worldview was based on biology. The key word of his entire philosophy is entelechy, which simply means the realization of potential. We can see this clearly in his definition of motion: “The fulfillment of what exists potentially, in so far as it exists potentially, is motion.” That’s a mouthful, but think of it this way: the act of building a house can be thought of as the expression of the potential of a house; the physical house in progress is the partially actualized house, but the building itself is the potential qua potential.

It is easy to see how Aristotle might get interested in the expression of potentialities from investigating living things. For what is an egg but a potential chicken? What is a child but a potential man? This idea of fully realizing one’s potential is at the basis of his ethics and his physics; just as fire realizes its potential for moving upwards, so do citizens realize their potential through moderation. Aristotle’s intellectual method is also heavily marked by one who spent time investigating life; for it is the dreary task of a naturalist to catalogue and to categorize, to investigate the whole by looking at the parts.

While this mindset served him admirably in many domains, it misled him in the investigation inanimate matter. To say that chickens grow from eggs as an expression of potential is reasonable; but to attribute the downward motion of rocks as an expression of their potential sounds odd. It is as if you asked somebody why cars move, and they responded “because it is the nature of the vehicle”—which would explain exactly nothing. But it is difficult not to be impressed by Aristotle; for even if he reached the wrong conclusions, at least he was asking the right questions.

View all my reviews

Review: Calculus (Kline)

Review: Calculus (Kline)

Calculus: An Intuitive and Physical Approach by Morris Kline

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Morris Kline’s book, Mathematics for the Nonmathematician, is my favorite book on the discipline. Kline showed an amazing ability to explain mathematical concepts intuitively, and to situate them within a sensible human context. In his hands, math was not simply a series of equations or deductive proofs, but an integral aspect of our civilization: a crucial tool in our species’ attempt to understand and manipulate the world. The book changed my view of the subject.

So when I found that Kline had written a book on the calculus, I knew that I had to read it. Calculus represents the furthest I have ever gone with mathematics in my formal schooling. By the time that I graduated high school, I was a problem-solving machine—with so many rules of algebra, trigonometry, derivation, and integration memorized that I could breeze through simple exercises. Yet this was a merely mechanical understanding. I was like a well-trained dog, obeying orders without comprehension; and this was apparent whenever I had to do any problems that required deeper thinking.

In time I lost even this, leaving me feeling like any ordinary mathematical ignoramus. My remedial education has been slow and painful. This was my primary object in reading this book: to revive whatever atrophied mathematical skills lay dormant, and to at least recover the level of ability I had in high school. Kline’s text was perfect for this purpose. His educational philosophy suits me. Rather than explain the calculus using formal proofs, he first tries to shape the student’s intuition. He does this through a variety of examples, informal arguments, and graphic representation, allowing the learner to get a “feel” for the math before attempting a rigorous definition.

He justifies his procedure in the introduction:

Rigor undoubtedly refines the intuition but does not supplant it. . . . Before one can appreciate a precise formulation of a concept or theorem, he must know what idea is being formulated and what exceptions or pitfalls the wording is trying to avoid. Hence he must be able to call upon a wealth of experience acquired before tackling the rigorous formulation.

This rings true to my experience. In my first semester of university, when I thought that I was going to study chemistry, I took an introductory calculus course. It was divided into lectures with the professor and smaller “recitation” classes with a graduate student. In the lectures, the professor would inevitably take the class through long proofs, while the grad student would show us how to solve the problems in the recitatives. I inevitably found the professor’s proofs to be pointless, and soon decided to avoid them altogether, since they confused me rather than aided me. I got an A-minus in the class.

Though Kline forgoes the rigor one would expect in formal mathematics, this book is no breezy read. It is a proper textbook, designed to be used in a two-semester introductory course, complete with hundreds of exercises. And as fitting for such a purpose, this book is dry. Gone are the fascinating historical tidbits and gentle presentation of Kline’s book on popular mathematics. This book is meant for students of engineering and the sciences—students who need to know how to solve problems correctly, or planes will crash and buildings will collapse. But Kline is an excellent teacher in this context, too, and explains each concept clearly and concisely. It was often surprisingly easy to follow along.

The exercises are excellent as well, designed to progress in difficulty, and more importantly to encourage independent thinking. Rather than simply solving problems by rote, Kline encourages the student to apply the concepts creatively and in new contexts. Now, I admit that the sheer amount of exercises taxed my patience and interest. I wanted a refreshment, and Kline gave me a four-course meal. Still, I made sure to do at least a couple problems per section, to check whether I was actually understanding the basic idea. It helped immensely to have the solutions manual, which you can download from Dover’s website.

In the end, I am very glad to have read this book. Admittedly this tome did dominate my summer—as I plowed through its chapters for hours each day, trying to finish the book before the start of the next school year—and I undoubtedly tried to read it far too quickly. Yet even though I spent a huge portion of my time with this book scratching my head, getting questions wrong, it did help to restore a sense of intellectual confidence. Now I know for sure that I am still at least as smart as I was at age 18.

And the subject, if often tedious, is fascinating. Learning any branch of mathematics can be intensely satisfying. Each area interlocks with and builds upon the other, forming a marvelous theoretical edifice. And in the case of the calculus, this abstract structure contains the tools needed to analyze the concrete world—and that is the beauty of math.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.



View all my reviews