Saturday, May 24, 2014

Civil War - Lucan

The end of the world, and what a waste. Lucan's Civil War recounts what is little short of Armageddon for the Roman Republic. After giving the courtesy nod to his contemporary regime, as though this were all somehow worth it, the poet launches into his epic recounting in which all manners of death are enumerated in great detail. We are led to believe that there can be neither winners nor conquerors in civil war - only the dead, the guilty, and the scarred. Assuming that he intended a similar conclusion, we can assert that no deeds, be they good or bad, go unpunished. Events and actions are largely driven forward by the contingency of the past, and when you enter a terrible situation, only terrible outcomes are possible. Even seemingly heroic acts end in death - by suicide or grisly dismemberment. Indeed, the measure of one's death seems to be the only possible virtuous act remaining. The message is in the very act of the telling: there can be no moral lessons in civil war.

In certain ways Civil War feels like a very modern story/history. If there is a protagonist surely it is Julius Caesar, but he also appears as the arch-villain, and the author of so much mayhem. Rather than focus on the exploits of Caesar, the dignity of Pompey, or the rectitude of Cato, Lucan allows each his turn to step forward, and to say and enact his vision for the world. All three move in and out of the spotlight as events dictate; each sharing in the destiny of the others, but none solely responsible for creating the future. Less are they subject to some impersonal forces and more do we recognize that men's actions shape the doom of their time. Rather than Fortune spurring Caesar on, it is the General's nature and his actions which have entreated Fortune to follow him. Lucan seems to anticipate the lines which Shakespeare who would put in none other than Julius Caesar's mouth: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. Lucan's message resounds through the ages, and his Civil War remains to remind us, among other things, of the depths to which men can sink, and, in so doing, drag their fellows along with them.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Complexity - M. Mitchell Waldrop

The spontaneity of matter. The uncertainty of the universe. The emergence of novelty. The balance between consistency and change. These physicists and computer scientists, economists and programmers seem to resemble new age gurus and mountaintop philosophers. Yet such claims hardly come from Zarathustra's cave, Lao Tzu's way, or the river of Heraclitus: these men (and they are almost entirely men) insist that such illuminations are grounded upon only the most rigorous science. They should know, some of the great minds of the past fifty years are making these claims.

Waldrop's is a history which recounts the very emergence of the science of complexity. Primarily tracing the birth and development of the Sante Fe Institute in New Mexico, Waldrop investigates not only the ideas, but also the personalities that forged what may be the cutting edge in refashioning how western society conceives of the world and our place within it. Complexity theory has many subtly different formal and informal definitions, but most theorists would likely agree that anyone who studies complex systems is interested in how the multiplicity of relationships between numerous entities occurring within a system yields novel and unforeseen consequences which transcend a simple agglomeration of the system's parts. Complex systems are unpredictable and Waldrop himself relates the science of complexity as essentially the science of understanding emergence.

Waldrop has succeeded in providing a lucid, readable, and engaging account of what might otherwise seem a rather dry topic. He communicates the type of excitement which can characterize any burgeoning field's development. However, though this approach may broaden the audience, it does not convey the character of debate and discussion, nor the discourse and uncertainty which is still present in the science of complexity. One might be forgiven for assuming the field is well-set to convey unified conclusions. There is little attempt to ground the science in concerns beyond those of the history's participants, nor a reflexive or critical look at the development of the theory itself. That complexity theory may surprise the so-called 'experts' more than the layperson or thinkers coming from other arenas of knowledge remains an unconquered issue for understanding the importance of complexity research. As a primer the work is strong, yet we may be left feeling as though Waldrop orbits the issue without directly confronting some of its more wicked problems or potential implications. Why complexity theory is worthy of a recounting in the first place remains unclear.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Livingstone - Tim Jeal

"In analysing the life of a great man - and Livingstone was undoubtedly great - there is always a basic problem: to be great is to be different, so the ordinary criteria of judgment fall short...Very often his best qualities were also his worst."

How we feel about David Livingstone at the end of Tim Jeal's biography will be bound up with the extent to which we allow for a type of license to such a "great" man. Unquestionably David Livingstone was not a good man. Therefore, do we forgive him for a lack of humanity given all that he was able to accomplish? Clearly this will depend on how we regard Livingstone's accomplishments and these, as Jeal highlights, have become inextricably bound up in the myth of Livingstone. At turns regarded as a dedicated missionary, an intrepid voyager, a peerless explorer, a national hero, a failure, and finely, a living legend, how Livingstone's accomplishments were understood by his contemporaries bear little resemblance to our current recognition of them. At the time of his death it was believed that Livingstone had discovered the headwaters of the Nile. We know now that he was mistaken. It was believed that he "discovered" Lake Nyassa (Lake Malawi), but of course Arab and Portuguese slave traders had long since navigated the lakes shores (not to mention countless Africans). Livingstone's crossing of southern African from Angola to Mozambique we now know had been previously accomplished, and finally, his geographic readings have been shown to be in significant error. Beyond his own time his accomplishments seem greatly diminished.

Yet we must recognize that this modern reality bears little impact on the life Livingstone led. He was undoubtedly, by the time of his death, an inspiration to his countrymen and countless missionaries. Without his exploits the history of Africa and the colonization would have looked drastically different - whether for better or worse we can never know. His impact on geopolitics and his legacy may have grown much greater after his lonely death in the African wilderness, but rarely has one man been so absent from the same society that would come to revere his accomplishments so greatly.

Judgment of the dead by our own standards of morality is a tricky proposition. While Livingstone was surely a difficult and thankless individual, he also lived a difficult and largely thankless life. Though surely made of sterner stuff, he was also a man who grew up in, and spent his life inhabiting, stern places. He pushed himself beyond the bounds of what one man should reasonably be expected to endure, and failed to understand how others could not meet his lofty standards. Yet all of this cannot entirely save us from the feeling that Livingstone was simultaneously dismissive of whites and paternalistic to Africans. Can we divorce our sense that he was distasteful personally from the idea that we has a "great" man? As the magnitude of his accomplishments seem to fade with time, and his morals seem even more distant, this will become more difficult. He was a complex man, deserving of a complex understanding.