Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Greek Way - Edith Hamilton

While the modern mind is divided, perhaps irrevocably, between the individual and society, between man and state, the Greeks of classical Athens knew no such division. For them the world was a rational and ordered place, and it was man's role to make sense of creation and find his proper spot within it. Far from a simply cynical view of the world, this sense of belonging, the placed-ness, brought together the Greek mind and spirit in way that, Hamilton remarks, remains unequaled to this day.

For renowned classicist Edith Hamilton, the Greek way was one of the spirit and the mind. To illustrate a fulsome picture of 5th century Athens, she tours the world of the arts and humanities. Through reflections on Aristophanes and Euripides, Thucydides and Pindar, Hamilton tells us that we can understand much of how the citizenry thought about the world. Though this may be less directly didactic then interpretations of Plato, Hamilton's task is a different one: she endeavors to assemble an entire collage so that a portrait of the whole society might be seen.

And what is revealed? Thucydides shows us a people tragically bound to the whims of men and societies seeking power, while Xenophon hopes for a better tomorrow. Herodotus journeys fair afield in the Mediterranean, seeing much that is noteworthy in the wisdom of others. Sophocles casts an unblinking eye on the tragic aspect of the human condition, noting how we live uncertain, and remain riven between that which men hope for, and that which men must do. Finally, in the works of Plato, and in the development of Greek religion, Hamilton shows us a people vested in the hope that the individual has to make the most of himself, not because some orthodoxy tells him so, but because he has taken hold of life and found that what is best is bound to everything that we hope to achieve.

While the work is little more than a cursory overview (and falters before the likes of Kitto's The Greeks), it does convey the unity underlying the seeming contradiction of Greek thought and action. It was excellence, Aristotle saw, that was "much labored for by the race of men." Through the application of the mind the world could be made sensible, and men could finally pursue that which is best. It was in this pursuit that the Greeks left their stamp upon the world.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Oration on the Dignity of Man - Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

Man is formed of a dual nature, at once being drawn to his highest calling and heavenly nature, while conversely being dragged into the deepest of depths. That man is capable of reaching such heights is, for Mirandola, an incomparable gift of the divine - yet it requires the cultivation of each person to realize such a possibility. Philosophy (and the Liberal Arts), Mirandola writes, empowers man to know what within him, and the world, is best. In the dialectic of good and evil, base and laudable, philosophy allows us to unmask the dual faces of the world, and see rightly. Once this has been accomplished it is through theological study that we will become the best people - most like the angels in all of material creation. With a soul purified through the study of moral philosophy, the grace of God might descend.

While such a theo-philosophy might seem eminently Christian in aspect, for Mirandola such conclusions are brought about by the contemplation of three central (and thoroughly Greek) precepts. First, a premise most famously explored by Aristotle (but resonant within Eastern philosophy) is that of the Golden Mean, or the Middle Way. Whereas absolute faith may yield a type of fanaticism, finding the balance between extremes is seen as a more rational and humanistic approach. Second, that famous dictum supposedly broadcast to Socrates by the Oracle at Delphi, "Know Thyself". Again we can see that this may contradict a theology whose central teaching would read: know God. The third precept is a bit more obscure, and reads, "Thou Art". This can be taken two ways (at least). If read as "You exist" or, "You are you" (an assertion that empowered the Greek mind in pursuit of arete, or, excellence) it ties in to the affirmation of human capability and the potential of all to move towards a human dignity through our own education and betterment. Another (and perhaps more compelling reading) would be to interpret the phrase as a mutual identification with creation around us. This is given voice throughout eastern tradition with the Sanskrit phrase "Tat Tvam Asi," or, "Thou art that."  Found in the Upanishads, such a precept not only links us to the world we inhabit, but speaks to a total subsuming of the self to an ultimate reality (what Northrop referred to as the "undifferentiated aesthetic continuum"). "See that object in front of you? Thou art that." It was written in many places in the East that enlightenment was to be achieved if one had a true understanding of this third dictum. If this is what Mirandola meant, then his work is rightly thought explosive and revolutionary.

At its core the Oration is a document heaping praise on the possibility of human achievement. That we might grow and come closer to the divine, not simply by a contemplation of another substratum of existence, but by knowing the world and our place within it, certainly colors the Christian experience (especially the Renaissance one) in a different light. Mirandola's work is a forerunner of the Enlightenment (western) and humanistic studies. In an age of widespread mechanization and techno-science we would do well to remember when it was a dangerous to assert the right to think broadly and that many fought, and died, to enable us to pursue our higher angels here on Earth.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Pasteurization of France - Bruno Latour

How did microbes ascend from an uncertain existence into the forefront of french scientific and political culture? In 1870 that microbes might exist at all was a tenuous proposition, yet by 1920 no reasonable scientist (or Frenchman) would hazard to contest not only the existence of microbes, but indeed their social import - surely ridicule would dog the steps of anyone who tried. Yet this seeming history of scientific discovery and subsequent social transformation would have been far from obvious to the contemporary observer; it is only after-the-fact that an asymmetrical narrative of success and failure can be attributed.

In The Pasteurization of France Bruno Latour looks at the formation (and transformation) of a microbial society. Refusing to sentence science to the narrow realm of experimentation, or bar the world from the laboratory, Latour endeavors upon a synthetic analysis in which trials of strength and weakness contest in a unified arena. Refusing to juxtapose reason and force, Latour shows how action rarely follows pathways of intention; that translations occur between actors. That a society exists for trials to take place in is far from a given, rather the social is made (and remade) continuously. If microbes cannot be dominated in the laboratory, Pasteur will be unable to perform his demonstrations; he will surely become a laughingstock and lose credibility. It is by the enrollment through transformation of different actors that society is intelligible in the first place. Latour has endeavored to made (and unmake and remake) sociology less as a point of departure, and more as an event of arrival.

At its core, Latour's work is an investigation into whether or not we are justified in separating context from content (one could suppose this extends to the divide between subject and object). Whether it is possible to separate the substance of analysis from the world of its existence, and where the critical cleavage point can occur, can never be known beforehand. Things must be allowed to speak for themselves, via trials of strength before we can know how they might be translated. If he is correct in saying that the real is where resistance occurs, then work must be done to manipulate and speak meaningfully about the world. Our arenas of analysis, our theories and disciplines, are contingent; they are able to surround us inasmuch as work is done to ensure their survival. In this transformed world is it any wonder that a new society is able to arise?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic - Tom Holland

"Laws and customs, precedents and myths, these formed the fabric of the Republic. No citizen could afford to behave as though they did not exist. To do so was to risk downfall and eternal shame." p. 256

The great citizens of Rome, the famous and the infamous, those whose names have traversed the passage of time, only to cast lengthier shadows, were bound up in a central contradiction, as were all Roman citizens. Foremost in the mind of such men was an unalloyed pursuit of greatness - a twist on the Greek's resplendent arete, suited for a more domineering and proud society. Yet, this pursuit could not but be hamstrung by the traditions and imperatives of the Republic. With its bygone history of kings, and situated within a Mediterranean world of tyrants, monarchs and self-styled gods-incarnate, Rome's people were ever aware of the awful potential for one to rise from their midst who would cast aside the shackle of custom, and, through force and force of personality, take away that most cherished treasure that a Roman citizen could call his own: his equality before the people, and his freedom in a world of subjects. Rise high and be proud, seemed to be the credo for Rome's great men; but not too high, and not too proud. It was the duty of the Senate and Forum to ensure the harness of this contrary concept did not lose its meaning, nor its mental, and indeed, spiritual, hold over the people.

Tom Holland writes of the final years of the Roman Republic, when such governing contradictions could no longer restrain the will of great men. As the power of Rome spread ever outward, with greater riches and glory to be won, with greater spoils to be distributed to the legions, the intoxicating power of the most desired proconsulships could not longer be contained. A generation before Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Sulla and Marius contested for the title of Rome's first citizen. Indeed, it was Sulla who first brought his legions to the streets of Rome, to assert his right to lead the Eastern campaigns. Seemingly, Holland tells us, it was only Sulla's fealty to the founding principles of the Republic that kept him from practically anointing himself emperor.

A generation later Julius Caesar would harbor no such compunction. Returning after a decade in the wilderness of Gaul as Rome's greatest hero, Caesar was unwilling to relinquish command of his legions. Denied another stint as consul, Caesar did one better, abolishing the position and setting himself up as dictator for an unprecedented ten year stint. He was to survive a scant few months.

As the Republic grew and spread its tendrils ever further it seems fated at this remove that the militaristic spirit of its leaders would overtake the republican ideals of its government. Holland reminds us that, to most people of the day, the fall of the Republic could hardly have been imagined. While Rome slept, the freedoms of its people were lost, never to be regained.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Origin of Wealth - Erik Beinhocker

New answers about the questions surrounding wealth are beginning to emerge, and such answers are coming not from traditional economics, but from the application of insights gleaned from such fields as evolutionary biology, computer science, anthropology, and psychology (to name a few). When we move beyond a view of the economy as a system tending towards equilibrium (the Traditional Economics approach) and re-imagine it as a Complex Adaptive System, new insights into the nature of economic structure, innovation and the future of wealth and value are uncovered.

Erik Beinhocker takes us on a tour of economic history to illuminate how the economy is so successful at what it does. How can a system with no central planner, with no central pivot point, nonetheless function as a complex organism, selecting for appropriate social and physical technologies, and moving forward with very real laws, norms and byways? Beinhocker's response is to think of the economy as an evolutionary system, much like biological speciation. All global and local economies (we will side-step the perhaps problematic nature of the referent-point of the term) select, within their context, for schema that are well-suited to their environment. Such schema will reproduce and, consequently, come to reshape the same environment so that selection pressures themselves grow and change. This is accomplished so effectively precisely because there is no central judge, but rather the system itself come to bear on the fitness of any technology. Much like the evolution of species, the economy is an algorithm of differentiation, selection and amplification.

It is important to note that when Beinhocker identifies the economy as an evolutionary system, he is conceptualizing evolution within the framework of complexity thinking. A conceptual movement only a scant thirty-something years old, complexity thinking, in essence, describes any system as an emergent whole which is, by its very nature, more than the sum of its part. While it is still crucial to any economic theory to understand the behavior of individuals, Beinhocker explains that we must not assume the broader system will simply operate as an agglomeration of individuals. As we scale up from the micro to the macro, on display are trends, values and actions that cannot be meaningfully assigned to a discrete actor or location. Rather, the economy itself becomes a living organism, subject to whims and caprices, growth and change. Much as people are more than simply a collection of cells, so too is the economy more than just producers and consumers; it is the passage between the different levels of analysis that makes understanding the nature of the beast so difficult.

Where the work is left wanting is on display in the last section when Beinhocker attempts to apply his new conceptualizations to understanding business and politics. While he posits fundamental questions about the purpose of the economy, and the values on display in the underlying structures therein, his conclusions come off as so much left-center moral-economic platitudes. While he has clearly researched complexity theory deeply, his subsequent application thereof leaves us wondering if this re-imagination of economic functioning has really changed how we think about the growth and evolution of the economy. One cannot help but wonder if a more thorough and critical view of complexity-thought might yield more fundamental insights about the nature, history, and thus the future possibilities of the evolving economic-political stage.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What It Takes - Richard Ben Cramer

It is probably only in retrospect that George Bush seemed the obvious choice for the job. Going into his recounting of the 1988 presidential election, Cramer certainly knew that he would have to fight the sense of inevitability surrounding the race's outcome. Bush's eventual victory buoys the narrative of him, just as their eventual losses darken the other candidates finest hours. Before history can be written, it must be enacted.

What It Takes is certainly a triumph of political reportage. Really an intertwining biography of six would-be presidential candidates, culminating in 1987-88, the greatest triumph of Cramer's work is certainly the lucidity and fullness with which he relates each story. In essence, it feels as though Cramer has adopted a bit of each candidate's personae.The no-nonsense economy of Michael Dukakis is conveyed in a tightening of prose. The rise of Gephardt is viewed through the sunny eyes of destiny and optimism. The haunted days of Bob Dole's hospital recovery, the frustration of living life as a shell of oneself are never fully escaped; and yet the Bobster is indomitable. Bush is chipper and eager, but he also has earned his time in the sun. Gary Hart... we feel his unsettled-ness: "Isn't he weird?"

And, in the end, Cramer does (after more than 1,000-plus pages) provide us with the answer to what it takes. A total and unflinching willingness. It has been written the no lesser a politician than LBJ would remark, "if you do everything, you will win." Cramer seems to agree. Though no candidate is immune to the twists and turns of fate, nor is any man able to escape his past, Cramer leaves us thinking that, by and large, George Bush would stand tallest because he was willing to do everything and anything it took to win. While this my resound with a cynical ring, Cramer turns it into a test of character, and, perhaps, the proper test of character for perhaps the world's most difficult job. The election is both a marathon and a sprint, requiring stamina beyond measure and the willingness to seize any crucial moment that may arise. Only a person who has survived the rigors can prove themselves, in the eyes of the public, worthy of the challenge. That is what sets them apart. Each of these men are, at their core, people just like us. But it is the restlessness, the drive, the competition, the dissatisfied nature of their beings, that drives them. Cramer's great success is that he has let their commonalities and crucial differences speak for themselves.