Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Story of Philosophy - Will Durant

Durant's has become a classic overview of the lives and thoughts of western philosophers. The men which fill Durant's pages are widely familiar, if, perhaps, not entirely understood. What Durant's work provides is a brief examination of many great minds, bringing these philosophers into conversation with one another, and into contact with the uninitiated reader. That their stories remain relevant to our modern context is the animating spirit of Durant's work; one that remains of import, even if that context is changed since the book's original publication of 1924.

The lives of western philosophers have been treated in thousands of works. Durant's volume is noteworthy for the ethos behind it. Originally published among the series of 'Little Blue Books' Durant's work was crafted specifically for the uninitiated; what historian Carl Becker called "Mr. Everyman." It was the belief of Durant, and of the Little Blue Books' publisher Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, that each person should have inexpensive access to the great works of thought and literature which have helped to define our modern world. That society could be founded upon a working class of liberally educated people, via the medium of cheap printed paperback books, and that this could also be a financially lucrative enterprise, was an idea which stood Little Blue Books in good stead for more than fifty years.

While Durant's work may seem innocuous for its subject matter, many of the implications a careful reader of Spinoza or Kant, Bacon and Nietzsche, could draw from even these brief treatments of their works and lives, in relation to his or her place in the social sphere, are anything but innocent. Durant does not shy away from the difficulties of his subjects, though he does specifically highlight them either. It is worth noting that Machiavelli and Hobbes, two more overtly politically antagonistic western minds, are not emphasized. But Durant's project is not, at least not overtly, political in nature. Yet this work provides the gateway to a broader world of complex philosophical thought - that such is appropriate for "Mr. Everyman" would be a claim almost universally agreed upon today, though widely dismissed in practice as unnecessary. Increasingly philosophy is the garden of the scant few. Our practical efforts favor innovation, novelty, and results. The contemplation of deeper, perhaps more troubling, ideas which have riven the western world - and some might say divide it still - can be seen as enacted in people's lives every day. There is a measure of trust in human capability to believe that a familiarity with such concerns might strengthen the broader social body. It was this cleavage between the power and the danger of ideas which would largely serve to be the undoing of the Little Blue Books.

The question of the education of the people remains vital. We should wonder if our commitment to a broadly educated and thoughtful citizenry is similarly as lively.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Minnesota: a history of the state - Theodore Blegen

A chronicle of the state he always called home, Blegen's history takes on the difficult and unenviable task of encapsulating both the being and meaning of Minnesota as it has grown and changed over time. From the geologic foundations and the coming of the first peoples, to pioneer days and statehood, Blegen has crafted a narrative of the state that is at once broad and rich.

Though he focuses primarily on Minnesota's (and Minnesotan's) successes, rather than their hardships and difficulties, Blegen's picture of the state pays heed to its tenuous foundations and uncertain early years. Perhaps the strongest part of the work is Blegen's ability to interweave the territorial (and then state) story within the broader context of the nation as Minnesota was finding its footing. As the first years of statehood would also see the United States tested by Civil War, striking this balance is a noteworthy feat. How Minnesota grows as both an autonomous entity and one member state among many, is a fluid stream kept close to the reader's attention.

Blegen's work is also a product of its time, and the contemporary reader might wonder at the relative scantiness which the natural environment, indigenous and minority peoples, and the non-agrarian working classes are given. We do well to keep in mind that much societal thinking has changed since 1960, and that Blegen was writing for his time and place, before Minnesota became, or was recognized to be, so broadly diverse. Yet Blegen does not ignore the different strains of Minnesotan identity. His emphasis on immigrations, geographies, and place names, traces the story of a transforming state continuously in the process of becoming. His account is in some ways mythic (not as untrue, but as a type of interpretive rubric), and resonates with certain aspects of the broader mythos of Minnesota.

In focusing on currents and threads, tracing changing actors and transforming landscapes, Blegen has achieved the rare feat of encapsulating the spirit of place. That his work was penned more than fifty years ago should be cause for reflection: how does the past continue to constitute our present, and how we imagine the future?