(Note: The excerpts below are related to issues outside of education; I will post education-related excerpts from From Dawn to Decadenceon Wide Awake Minds, my education blog. You can find these here if you are interested.)
Here are a few excerpts from what I’ve read so far:
In any art a new technical power leads to uses and ideas not suspected at first. … Another singularity in Petrarch’s life was that he climbed a high hill in southern France in order to admire the view.
I am currently reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl, a psychiatrist, was imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, for several years. He survived the experience and went on to develop the theory of “logotherapy,” a branch of psychoanalysis that focuses on human beings’ “will to meaning.” The part of the book that discusses Frankl’s memories of his camp experience is, like any Holocaust memoir worth its salt, extremely disturbing and difficult to read, but it ought to be read in spite of that.
I was sorting through some books in my closet yesterday, and I discovered a fantastic book which drew me away from my regular reading: The Douglas Letters: Selections from the Private Papers of William O. Douglas, edited by Melvin I. Urkofsky. William O. Douglas was a brilliant, contrarian Associate Justice on the Supreme Court as well as a transformative environmentalist and New Dealer who crusaded against rampant speculation and corruption in the financial industry.
One way to put the question I want to answer here is this: why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable? … Important as science is to our present outlook, we mustn’t exaggerate its causal role here, and make it the main motor of the transformation. Our encasing in secular time is also something we have brought about in the way we live and order our lives.
I finished “Moby-Dick” yesterday. It was one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read - but also incredibly beautiful and rewarding.
The past is inaccurate, because we cannot determine how it was in fact, no matter how hard we try. We must rely on people’s memory, which is treacherous, because memory is constantly juggling and revising the data of experience. …In telling about an event, we ourselves cannot avoid revising it, because our narrative simplifies and composes a whole out of selected components, while omitting others.
I’ve intended to read Howard Zinn’s revisionist history of the United States - A People’s History of the United States - for years, and I finally buckled down and started it this week. It is an excellent and eye-opening book, to say the least, and I found myself becoming absorbed in and largely agreeing with the narrative of the first few chapters - his interpretation of the “discovery” and colonization of America.
Two must-reads on current events:
-David Brooks on the Obama-Clinton race.
-”Bush’s War,” a PBS Frontline documentary with extraordinary cinematography and interviews with key players involved in the political decisions surrounding the invasion and occupation of Iraq. I highly recommend watching it (it’s free online), or at least poking around the website a bit. The site includes an annotated video timeline and transcripts from over 400 interviews.
“Biography, psychology, sociology, history,” (historian John Demos) has written: “four corners of one scholar’s compass, four viewpoints overlooking a single field of past experience.
Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a beldham’s hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been knifed to death? They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.
Struggles to coerce uniformity of sentiment in support of some end thought essentially to their time and country have been waged by many good, as well as by evil, men. …Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.
Justice Robert Jackson, writing for the U.S. Supreme Court –West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)
The achievements of the past provide the only means at command for understanding the present. …The institutions and customs that exist in the present and that give rise to present social ills and dislocations did not arise overnight. They have a long history behind them. Attempt to deal with them simply on the basis of what is obvious in the present is bound to result in adoption of superficial measures which in the end will only render existing problems more acute and more difficult to solve.
The following list includes the books I’ve read this year that I enjoyed the most and that had the biggest effect on me. I give the highest recommendation to all of them, and I’ve bolded the top five.
Akhmatova, Selected Poems
Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison
Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun
de Bary, Sources of Japanese Tradition
Frye, The Educated Imagination
Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics
In international politics, God helps those who help themselves.
Because Americans dislike realpolitik, public discourse about foreign policy in the United States is usually couched in the language of liberalism. Hence the pronouncements of the policy elites are heavily flavored with optimism and moralism. …Behind closed doors, however, the elites who make national security policy speak mostly the language of power, not that of principle, and the United States acts in the international system according to the dictates of realist logic.
Not many years ago great offence was given by an eminent writer who remarked that the time had come when the history of Christianity should be treated in a truly historical spirit, in the same spirit in which we treat the history of other religions, such as Brahmanism, Buddhism, or Mohammedanism. And yet what can be truer? He must be a man of little faith, who would fear to subject his own religion to the same critical tests to which the historian subjects all other religions.
I just finished the best novel I’ve read in a very long time. I am stunned at how beautiful Knut Hamsun’s writing is, and cannot believe that he is not a household name in America. He was a very flawed man - like Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, and too many others, he abused his considerable intellectual gifts in support of Nazism, and it is understandable that this removed his right to a full place in the Great Books pantheon.
Happy Independence Day! I’ll be spending a lazy Fourth revelling in freedom from work, sitting on the back porch with my roommates, and reading like crazy.
Just discovered Anna Akhmatova, a Russian poet who wrote and published under the specter of Soviet communism and Stalinism; her husband of eleven years was shot in 1921 as a “counter-revolutionary,” her son and lover were arrested and sent to labor camps, and she herself was regularly persecuted and followed by the secret police.