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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Quotes & Commentary #26: Durant

Quotes & Commentary #26: Durant

A sense of humor, being born of perspective, bears a near kinship with philosophy; each is the soul of the other.

—Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy

Durant, though not much of a comedian (and hardly more of a philosopher), did have his funny moments. My favorite of his subtle sarcasms is this delicious pun: “Holland boasted of several ladies who courted in Latin, who could probably conjugate better than they could decline.”

I was reminded of this quote while reading Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. In his brief overview of his therapeutic technique, Logotherapy, Frankl mentions that he often uses humor to help his patients deal with neuroses.

The popular cognitive therapist, David D. Burns, also uses humor to help his patients deal with anxiety and depression. One of his techniques for managing fear is to replace a dreadful fantasy with a funny one. This relies on the same principle as the advice commonly given to people with a fear of public speaking: imagine everyone in the crowd in their undergarments. The effect of this is to transform something dreadfully serious and frightening into something absurd, and even fun.

I remember something from a documentary I saw long ago (I wish I could remember which one) that human babies laugh when something apparently dangerous turns out, upon closer inspection, to be harmless. For example: A mom hides her face behind her hands. The baby gets confused and nervous. He can no longer see her face. Is that still his mom? What’s going on? Then, the mom takes her hands away, revealing a silly smile. The baby giggles with delight. It was mommy all along!

The reason why humor is effective in dealing with anxiety relies, I think, on this same mechanism. When we manage to see the humor in our situation, we see it from a new point of view, a new perspective in which our problems, which looked terrible from up close, now look silly and harmless.

In a way, to find something humorous, we must see the situation from a greater distance. Instead of getting absorbed in a problem, letting its shape occupy our whole field of vision, we place the problem in a landscape and thus contextualize it. When we do this, often we find ourselves laughing, because the problem, which before seemed so huge, is really small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Here’s a recent example. A book review I wrote, of which I am fairly proud, was somehow deleted off Goodreads. At first I got very annoyed and upset. I had put so much effort into writing it! And I lost all the likes and comments! Then, with a smile, I realized that it is a bit absurd to get worked up about an internet book review. People are struggling to find jobs, managing chronic diseases—and for Pete’s sake Trump is president! My lost book review was nothing to get frustrated about.

As Durant points out, it is this quality of humor—seeing the part within the context of the whole—that most approaches philosophy. Durant does not, of course, mean “philosophy” in the strict, modern sense of the word (the subject that deals with problems of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and so forth). He means, rather, philosophy in its classic sense, as a method of regulating one’s life and thoughts in order to be more virtuous and happy. Nowadays, instead of philosophy, we have therapy and self-help books to aid us in this quest. But whatever we decide to call the art of life, I think most of us can agree that humor plays no small part in it.

Just the other day, I was having a conversation with a teacher in the philosophy department of my school. I asked if there were any Spanish philosophers she would recommend. She mentioned a couple names, but then she added: “You know, the most profound Spanish philosophy cannot be found in any philosophy book. It’s in Don Quixote.”

I was struck by this comment, because Unamuno, who I just finished reading, had the same opinion. And I can’t help agreeing. All profound comedy—and there is no comedy no more profound than Don Quixote—necessarily carries with it a profound philosophy. I do not mean by this that you can extract from Cervantes anything similar to Kant’s ethics; only that great comedy requires an ability to see things as they really are, within the context of the whole, and to transmit this vision with punch and savor.

The comedian alive who, in my opinion, comes closest to this quixotic ideal is Louis C.K. His comedy is distinctive for its emphasis on self-mockery. Most often he uses himself as the butt of his jokes. But his comedy is saved from narcissism because, despite his wealth and fame, he convincingly adopts an everyman persona. Whenever he makes fun of himself he is making fun of you, because inevitably you think the same thoughts and do the same things. But his comedy isn’t threatening because, however denigrating he can be, everyone in the audience is all in it together.

This ability to make fun of yourself is one of the qualities I value most highly. It saves you from being arrogant, condescending, and over-serious. It allows you to be humorous without picking on other people. Self-mockery is also, I think, an excellent antidote to many of life’s petty troubles (like deleted book reviews). If you can take a step back from yourself, and honestly see your faults, your pettiness, and your absurdities—not with bitterness but with forgiving humor—then you will be able to see your successes and your failures with the gentle irony that life, a thoroughly silly thing, so richly deserves.

Quotes & Commentary #15: Ecclesiastes

Quotes & Commentary #15: Ecclesiastes

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

—Ecclesiastes 1:9

Today in my history class I showed my students a similar quote, this one by the medieval Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun: “The past resembles the future more than one drop of water resembles another.”

I asked my students to tell me what this quote means. Both the language and the philosophy were a bit advanced for them, yet one student hit upon the basic idea: people are always the same. We may change our world, and we can change our behavior, but we can’t change our nature.

True, in many ways the present is manifestly different from the past. Technology has advanced, science has expanded our knowledge, and political institutions have become more democratic and fair. Trade and industry have made us so wealthy that even modest citizens can afford pleasures considered a luxury a short time ago. We live longer, wealthier, and healthier lives than ever before; and we live in a society that, however imperfectly, is more tolerant of more different types of people—atheist, gay, black—than at any other time. In short, notwithstanding our endless limitations and our serious problems, progress is possible.

And yet every step forward is a victory over ourselves, a victory over our darker nature. Human history is an endless war of virtues against vices. Civilization is not the inevitable result of human intelligence, but a prize that countless generations have fought to achieve. Progress has been anything but linear. We have stagnated, and we have retrogressed. The same mistakes, follies, and brutalities have been repeated endlessly through time, over and over, each generation forgetting the lessons learned by the last one.

The philosopher George Santayana famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But as the historian Will Durant reminds us: “History is an excellent teacher with few pupils.”

I used to think that progress was natural and inevitable. I grew up believing that racism, at least in its more brutal variety, had been largely eradicated. The emancipation of the slaves, the enfranchisement of women, and the acceptance of homosexuality seemed in retrospect like the unavoidable result of progress. It was only natural that we had become more tolerant, and the future would be even more accepting than the present.

And now? Now I see clearly that all these accomplishments, all these victories of toleration over racism, sexism, and homophobia, were hardly inevitable. Rather, they were the hard-won fruit of a bitter battle, a battle that is far from over, which in fact will never be over. The future may be different from the past, and that which shall be may be different from that which has been, but only if we fight for it. If we are complacent, if we take things for granted, then truly there will be no new thing under the sun.

Review: Feeling Good

Review: Feeling Good

Feeling Good: The New Mood TherapyFeeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you can love and respect yourself in failure, worlds of adventure and new experiences will open up before you, and your fears will vanish.

It is an interesting statement on contemporary culture that practical, self-help books are often looked down on as lowbrow, unsophisticated, and unworthy of serious consideration. Just note how often in reviews of self-help books you come across the phrase, “I don’t normally read books like this,” or the like. Of course, skepticism regarding books of this kind is merited, especially when you take into account the amount of quackery, chicanery, demagoguery, and baloney in print. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say we have a veritable advice industry in our culture today, with a great deal of money to be made and thus lots of enterprising, unscrupulous people peddling various forms of nonsense, hoping to get rich. Self-help books now sell so well that they have to be excluded from non-fiction sales rankings, because if they weren’t the top 10 best sellers would be an endless parade of one self-help book after another.

But why are so many people willing to pay for and devour book after book, getting swept about by the ceaseless winds of doctrine, navigating their lives through fad after fad? Fashionable ways of running and ruining your life have always been with us; yet I think there is another aggravating factor at work in the present day.

Recently I read two history books, one about Ancient Greece and the other about Rome. As I learned about the philosophies of education in those societies, I noticed how central were the ideas of ethical and moral teaching. I don’t mean ethical in the narrow sense of right and wrong, but in the wider Greek sense, used by Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicureans—how to cultivate wisdom, how to live a well-regulated life, how to deal with the hardships and misfortunes that are so often thrown our way. These were primary concerns of pedagogy. By contrast, our current education system, as least here in the States, has deemphasized ethical teaching almost completely.

There are, of course, many reasons for this, and many of them are good ones; but I do think it leaves a certain gap in our culture that self-help books partially fill. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, many of these seem rather mediocre—or worse. But this book, by David D. Burns, is for me one of the exceptions. It is an interesting and, for me, an extremely useful book, based on a well-studied and much-tested therapeutic technique.

Burns’s aim in writing this book was to popularize the methods of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a therapeutic technique developed by the psychologist Aaron T. Beck, among others. The premise of CBT is very simple: your moods are caused by your thoughts, so by controlling your thoughts you can control your moods. At first sight, this may seem like complete nonsense; our moods come and go, and our thoughts simply take on the timbre of whatever mood we happened to be in, right? This seems to be what most people assume; certainly I did. Yet consider this scenario, which actually happened to me:

My boss scheduled a meeting with me out of the blue. I immediately started thinking that I hadn’t been doing a good job recently, so I began to panic, sure I was about to get fired. Eventually, this panic turned to indignation, as I convinced myself of the injustice of the situation, since I worked hard and tried my best. So, literally trembling with anxiety and outrage, I went to the meeting and sat down; and my boss said: “We’re giving you a bonus, because you’ve been doing so well. Congratulations!” Suddenly, all my negative feelings turned into joy.

This I think well illustrates the central idea behind CPT. All of my negative and positive emotions in this scenario were due to my interpretation of the event, not the event itself. I made the false assumption, based on no evidence, that I was going to be fired. I thought of every mistake and imperfection in my work over the last month or so, and convinced myself that I was doing poorly and that termination was imminent. Then, I persuaded myself that I wasn’t given adequate resources or support, and that the situation was unjust. And when I was finally given the bonus, I interpreted that to mean I was doing a good job and that I was getting all the support I needed—which were equally tenuous interpretations. Thus you can see how my mood was a direct product of my thoughts.

All of my negative assumption in the above paragraph contain what Burns calls “warped thoughts,” or cognitive distortions. These are irrational patterns of thinking which have been found to be common in depressed and overly anxious patients. The CBT interpretation of depression is that these thinking patterns are not caused by depression, but actually cause depression. In other words, depression results from persistent, unrealistic negative interpretations of one’s life and experience, leading one to focus solely on the bad and to feel hopeless about the future.

Burns gives a list of 10 types of warped thoughts, but in my opinion there is quite a bit of overlap in the categories. The distortions more or less boil down to the following:

—Making negative assumptions, whether about the future or about what someone else is thinking;
—Assuming that one’s emotions accurately reflect reality;
—Over-generalizing a small number of negative occurrences into an inevitable trend;
—Willfully ignoring all of the positives to focus solely on the negative;
—Thinking in black and white categories;
—Making unjustified “should” or “ought” statements about the world without considering other people’s perspectives;
—Feeling that you are responsible for things over which you have no control;
—Labeling oneself and others with vague pejoratives.

The first part of this book is dedicated to allowing the reader to recognize these types of thoughts and to combat them. This most often is just a matter of writing these thoughts down and exposing the distortions that lay beneath. Simple as this sounds, I’ve found this to be remarkably effective. As you might have guessed from the above example, I am rather prone to anxiety; and during this summer, my anxiety was getting to the point that I felt incapacitated. I was driving my friends and family nuts with my constant worrying; and nobody, including myself, knew how to deal with me.

Luckily, I heard about a site called MoodGYM, which is a website developed by the Australian National University for people dealing with anxiety and depression, using the techniques of CBT. Desperate for some relief, I completed the reading and activities on the website, and found that I felt much, much better. Impressed, I looked for books on CBT techniques, and of course came across this one.

What most intrigued me about CBT was the emphasis on accuracy. The techniques weren’t based on the premise that I was somehow damaged or filled with strange desires, nor did they include any amount of self-delusion or wishful thinking. Quite the reverse: the whole emphasis was on thinking clearly, basing beliefs on evidence, avoiding unreasonable assumptions, and seeing things from multiple points of view.

Take anger. Very often (though not always), our feelings of indignation simply result from seeing an event through a narrowly selfish lens. We don’t get the job we interviewed for, and we feel cheated; someone beat us to that parking spot, and we feel outraged. But when we consider these scenarios from the perspective of the boss or the other driver, the situation suddenly seems much more just and fair; they are pursuing their own interests, just like we are. So simply by looking at the situation from multiple points of view, and thus understanding it more fully, our feelings of anger are cooled.

When I began working through the techniques in the book, I was astounded by how often these types of distortions plagued my thinking. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so unpleasant: I could twist any situation or piece of information into somehow reflecting negatively on my character. Everything bad in the world confirmed my negativity, and everything good only served to reproach me and to make me envious and resentful. The good news was that, when I began to recognize these illogical patterns of thought, it was extremely easy for me to correct them; and for the past month or so I’ve been feeling a great deal happier and calmer.

After teaching the reader several personal and interpersonal techniques—strategies for dealing with oneself and others more effectively—Burns moves on to examining some of the underlying assumptions that give rise to warped thinking. It turns out that these all involve equating one’s “value” or “worth” with some extrinsic good, whether it be approval, love, success, fame, or even skill. There is, of course, nothing wrong with enjoying the approval of others, the thrill of love, the sense of accomplishment, or the satisfaction of a job well done. The problem arises when, instead of enjoying something, we use it to measure ourselves.

To use a somewhat silly but germane example, how many people believe that those who read more books, bigger books, harder books, are somehow “superior” to people who don’t? I’ve certainly been guilty of this; but it is pretty clearly an absurd position when I think about it, and one that I couldn’t possibly defend on any valid moral or intellectual grounds. What on earth does it even mean to be a “superior” person?

Superiority only makes sense when we have some quality we can measure, such as wealth or strength; but when we say “superior” by itself, what quality do we mean? “Worth”? How do you measure that? You can try being clever and say “By the number of books you read” or something, but that’s clearly circular reasoning. If you are a humanist or religious, you might say that you have worth just from the fact of being alive; but then of course everyone is equally worthy and there’s no sense in feeling worthless.

In the non-Goodreads population, I suspect book addiction isn’t a big problem; more often, people feel down because they imagine that approval, love, money, or expertise is necessary to be a worthwhile and happy person. But the absurdity of this kind of thinking is revealed when you consider how many famous, beloved, rich, virtuosic, brilliant, successful people there have been, and still are, who are deeply depressed and feel worthless and hopeless. Short of torture, there are no circumstances in life that guarantee unhappiness; and the same goes for happiness. This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to change or improve your situation, only a reminder you that the way you interpret a situation is often as important as the situation itself, if not more so.

I cannot hope to sum up the entire book in the space of this review; but I hope what I have included has convinced you that it’s at least worth looking into. After all, by definition, nothing feels better than happiness.

Of course, the book isn’t perfect. Burns’s writing style is nothing remarkable, and it is occasionally tacky; but I think that it’s excusable considering that he’s a therapist, not a writer, and that he’s trying to reach a popular audience. One flaw that I thought was less easy to excuse was Burns’s exclusive focus on straight couples in his sections on love and relationships. Burns writes in a purely heteronormative vein, not even acknowledging same-sex couples, which is difficult to justify, considering the higher rates of depression and anxiety among gays and lesbians—not to mention others in the LGBTQ community. I hope this is changed in future additions.

A criticism I am tempted to make, but which I actually think is unfair, is that CBT makes people passive, accepting, and more content with the status quo. It sometimes seems as if Burns is telling people not to try to change their circumstances, but rather to accommodate themselves to them. I think this is unfair for a few reasons. No matter how powerful we may be, there will always be things in life which we cannot change and which we simply have to accept; so developing the tools to do so without frustration or anger is useful for everyone. What’s more, real depression and anxiety are not conducive to effective action. Quite the opposite: depression often makes people apathetic and anxiety makes people feel too overwhelmed to do anything. Besides, you can’t solve a problem unless you can see it clearly, and the thinking patterns associated with depression and anxiety lead to a total inability to see problems clearly and to deal with them rationally. So I think accusations that this book is somehow reactionary or that it leads to passivity are unfair.

To sum up this already overlong review, I just hope I’ve convinced you that this book might be extremely valuable to you or to someone you know. It certainly has been for me. Now I no longer feel that I am at the mercy of my moods or emotions, or that my sense of self-worth or confidence is dependent on my circumstances. And I’d say these benefits definitely outweigh the tacky cover and the corny title, don’t you?

(Oh, and if the book seems like too big a commitment, MoodGYM is pretty swell too, despite additional corniness of course.)

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