Category: non-fiction

The Monarchia Controversy (75 Books – XL)

After finishing Dante’s Monarchia, I decided to look for some of the various commentaries and related works that editor Prue Shaw referred to in my Cambridge University Press edition. Several of these aren’t easily available, at least not in English, but I did find The Monarchia Controversy, edited by Anthony Cassell and published by the Catholic University of America Press. This includes Monarchia, Guido Vernani’s Refutation of the “Monarchia” Composed by Dante, and Pope John XXII’s bull Si fratrum, as well as Cassell’s own introduction and annotations.

Starting from the end of the book, Si fratrum is the document that sparked the controversy around the relationship between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor and whether one was subordinate to the other, though this controversy had been brewing for many years. It’s nice to have, then, for historical interest, but at only four pages it doesn’t develop any arguments, but simply proclaims that the pope is the legitimate ruler of the Empire when the office of emperor is vacant, and that it is his prerogative to approve of the election of the next emperor.

Guido Vernani’s Refutation is also relatively short, under thirty pages, and of mixed quality. Some of his arguments are disingenuous, as Cassell points out fairly often in his introduction and annotations. Also, while Dante kept a neutral tone throughout most of his work and portrayed himself as almost a third-party to the disputes, Vernani is sometimes outright abusive. Before introducing one of his last arguments, for example, he writes, “Here the wretch [Dante] reached the heights of his delirium: as he raised his mouth to heaven, his tongue lolled along the ground.” There’s nothing wrong with a polemical tone, and Dante isn’t subtle in calling some of his opponents sons of Satan, but in works dealing mostly in formal logic, theology, and history, this sort of attack stands out as mean-spirited and unworthy of formal debate.

That said, Vernani does raise some valid points. For example, he argues, quite reasonably, that only Christ could realistically have all of the virtues that Dante attributes to his vision of the universal monarch. He also points out that Dante’s interpretation of Roman history, with its heroism, nobility, and miracles, is very different from one of Dante’s own sources, St. Augustine, as well as several other authorities, who portray these same events in a very negative light.

I only skimmed through the Monarchia itself, but it seems readable enough. Of course, I’m not competent to judge the accuracy of one translation over another.

Over half the book is composed of Cassell’s annotations and his 100-page introduction, which is about three times longer than Prue Shaw’s in the CUP edition. Whether it’s three times more valuable depends on how much depth you want; both give an outline and some historical context, but Cassell goes into much more depth, especially on the reaction to Dante’s work, which Shaw only briefly mentions, and in analysing the method and substance of both Dante’s and Vernani’s arguments. This is all interesting to students of Medieval or philosophical history, but much of it isn’t really necessary to understanding either author. The annotations, which unfortunately are endnotes rather than footnotes, are also more thorough in Cassell’s edition, though not by a wide margin.

Now, I highly recommend reading Dante’s Monarchia, but which edition to read depends largely on what you’re interested in getting. If you just want the Monarchia itself with just enough additional explanation to understand the context and have a starting point for further study, then Shaw’s is perfect. If you’re interested in Medieval intellectual history and would like something more thorough, then Cassell’s is worth the extra cost – it’s fairly expensive new (over $70), but finding used copies isn’t difficult.…

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The 10,000 Year Explosion (75 Books – XXXIX)

I should probably begin with a disclaimer that I’m very much a layman when it comes to biology and genetics; my experience in the field is limited to a couple college classes. That said, I read and greatly enjoyed The 10,000 Year Explosion, by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, which covers recent human evolution, essentially from the development of agriculture on. The authors accomplish a difficult task of explaining a fairly complex topic in terms that the average, non-specialist reader can understand, while still covering the topic adequately and not coming across as condescending. In fact, the tone is fairly light throughout, reminding me of some of my better college professors who took an almost conversational tone during lectures, with occasional touches of humour. In discussing how genes spread between populations, for example, they drily note, “Sailors and barmaids, like traveling salesmen and farmers’ daughters, have played a crucial role in recent human evolution.”

Besides fairly abstract discussions of the technicalities of how human genetics and natural selection work, they also have a number of interesting illustrations of recent evolution. For example, while going over changes in skeletal structure, they provide a recent study from England:

English researchers recently compared skulls from people who died in the Black Death (≈650 years ago), from the crew of the Mary Rose, a ship that sank in Tudor times (≈450 years ago), and from our contemporaries. The shape of the skull changed noticeably over that brief period—which is particularly interesting because we know there has been no massive population replacement in England over the past 700 years. The height of the cranial vault of our contemporaries was about 15 percent larger than that of the earlier populations, and the part of the skull containing the frontal lobes was thus larger.

The 10,000 Year Explosion reminds me of Nicholas Wade’s book from last year, A Troublesome Inheritance, which covers biological racial differences, and which I’d also recommend reading for those interested in the topic. Both works are interesting in themselves, of course, but those of us more invested in politics than science will find it noteworthy that they were published at all. Wade addresses the racial angle head-on, though not polemically, but Cochran and Harpending take a different approach. They only mention the “controversy” around the topic a few times, and always dismissively. In the concluding chapter, for example, they say, “Evolutionary stasis requires a static environment, whereas behavioral modernity is all about innovation and change. Stability is exactly what we have not had. This should be obvious, but instead the human sciences have labored under the strange idea that evolution stopped 40,000 years ago.”

Also, while Wade does not directly address intelligence differences, Cochran and Harpending devote a chapter to exploring how Ashkenazi Jews came to have the highest average IQ in the world. In that chapter, they mention that there is a lot of controversy about the validity of IQ testing, but add, “These criticisms and dismissals, interestingly, hardly ever come from scientists working in the area of cognitive testing and its outcomes: There is little or no controversy within the field.” This correlates with comments by Wade and a few other people I’ve encountered who’ve studied the topic, and it’s interesting to me as an example of selective credentialism. How often do we see publications emphasise how widely theories of global warming are accepted by climatologists, almost always coupled with harsh criticism of the non-experts who question the scientists’ conclusions? Yet, the validity of intelligence testing is also widely accepted by experts, and is treated as if it’s highly controversial!

In any case, Cochran and Harpending’s topic is an important one, and I’d highly recommend that anyone at all interested give it a read.…

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The Analects of Confucius (75 Books – XXXVIII)

Let me start by saying this: The Analects of Confucius is a strong contender for the greatest work of non-fiction ever written, and has been the single most influential book on how I think about society and politics. I’ve read seven translations of it (Legge, Waley, Leys, Lau, Pound, Huang, and Chan’s partial translation), some of them multiple times. My knowledge of the Chinese language is only barely non-zero, so I can’t really offer an opinion on which is the most accurate, but in terms of literary style, coherence, and intelligibility to the average Westerner, they’ve all been at least decent. When looking for a Kindle edition of the Analects, I came across Leonard Lyall’s translation from 1909, and since it was free (or at least cheap, I don’t remember) I thought I may as well give it a shot.

Unfortunately, Lyall gets the honour of being the first translation I’d specifically recommend avoiding.…

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De Monarchia (75 Books – XXXVI)

Dante begins this short book by telling his audience that he has an unpopular truth to share. “No one has attempted to elucidate it,” he says, “on account of its not leading directly to material gain,” but share it he must, because men are made to seek the truth, and he does not want to be accused by later generations of “hiding [his] talent.” So, he argues that the world ought to be ruled by a single absolute monarch, that the Roman Empire ruled the known world by right (which, presumably, is passed to its successor), and whose power is God-given, though not dependant on the Church.

Unsurprisingly, De Monarchia (or just Monarchy in Cambridge University Press’s edition) had few fans in the Fourteenth Century and has even fewer fans now. As for me, of course, I love it.

Now, it can be a tough read; Dante structures each of the three parts as a series of syllogisms, and though he does explain some principles of logic as he goes, the writing is dense and requires the reader’s full attention. If you’ve read, say, Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas you probably have a good idea of what to expect. He also writes primarily for a Christian audience; though he doesn’t rely on Scripture as much as, say, Sir Robert Filmer, he does make frequent reference to Biblical events, and one of his arguments in the second part, on whether the Romans ruled the world by right, is that they did because Christ gave an explicit approval of Roman authority. He also makes much use of pagan writers like Virgil or Cicero, and he draws from Aristotle about as much as the Bible, so non-Christian readers will still find a lot of material to consider, it just won’t be as convincing as it would to Dante’s intended audience.

The first part, on why a universal monarchy is needed, is the most interesting and relevant for modern readers. The second seems like a moot point; whether Rome ruled the known world by right is interesting for fans of that era of history, but who can plausibly claim to be “Roman” now? Even in Dante’s time, the Holy Roman Empire was only “Roman” in a very loose sense. I suppose Moscow is sometimes called the “Third Rome,” but I doubt that Dante would accept an Eastern Orthodox monarchy as a legitimate candidate for his universal empire. The third part considers whether a monarch depends on the papacy for legitimacy, and Dante argues forcefully that it does not, though papal approval can and should lend its support to monarchy.

Probably De Monarchia‘s main weakness is that it seems very theoretical. Once we accept that the Holy Roman Emperor (or some other suitable “Roman,” I suppose) has the right to rule the world, how do we arrive at that goal? Even Rome did not conquer the entire known world, much less the entirety of the seven continents. I suppose if the United Nations were turned monarchical and halfway effective we might be in the ballpark, but the UN is in no way Roman. Perhaps Dante must be content with the first step of convincing people that this is a goal worth working towards at all.

In any case, I’m reluctant to try summarising his arguments or even quoting at length, since his syllogisms are so interdependent that it’s difficult to find a snappy quote that stands apart. Besides, it’s only ninety-four pages, so really, if you have any interest at all in the subject, this is a must-read book.

On a final, somewhat tangential note, in my post on the appeal of Mishima Yukio I speculated on why Dante may have included Cato at the gates of Purgatory in the Divine Comedy. My theory was that even though Cato committed suicide, he did so not out of despair but out of zeal for the rule of law. Sure enough, in the second book Dante briefly discusses Cato and says, in part, “in order to set the world afire with love of freedom, [Cato] showed the value of freedom when he preferred to die a free man rather than remain alive without freedom.”…

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Short Breaks in Mordor (75 Books – XXXIII)

Reading e-books is, for me, an act of desperation. As I’ve written before, I love books as physical objects, and only resort to my Kindle if there’s no other feasible way to read something. So, this is how I read Short Breaks in Mordor, the newest book from Peter Hitchens, published exclusively in digital format.

His difficulty in finding a traditional publisher is unfortunate, because Short Breaks, which collects many of the author’s articles on his travels around the world, is well worth picking up and I’d love to have a physical copy of it. Destinations vary from Moscow, Russia to Moscow, Idaho, and in each place Hitchens speaks to as wide a variety of people as he can meet to give readers a good sketch of the people who live there.

For example, in Iran he does speak with the type of religious fundamentalists one expects the country to be full of based on its portrayal in Western media. However, he also finds several examples of quiet resistance to the Islamic Republic, and finds a wide variety of opinions on the West and on their own country, and the resulting articles give a much more complex idea of what the country is like. On Iran’s dress codes, for instance, he observes, “Clothes intended to be shapeless have been carefully nipped in and adapted to emphasize the waist, contrary to regulations. Headscarves are placed so far back on the head that they are barely there at all. Heels are high, and many walk and stand like Parisians. Every so often, squads of morality police still descend on the streets to try to enforce compulsory modesty. But the battle is undoubtedly lost. And that is important because it symbolizes the way in which the regime has failed to hold the hearts of the people in so many other ways as well.”…

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Robert E. Lee (75 Books – XXX)

Ever since I first took an interest in history back in middle or high school, I’ve occasionally gone to the local library or bookstore and there confirm something that is, unfortunately, unsurprising: most American’s aren’t interested. A look at the shelves would turn up a few things on Greece or Rome, maybe the Cold War or China, and if you wanted to know about, say, the unification of Italy, you’re totally out of luck.

There are, however, a few exceptions. It’s easy to find Americans knowledgeable and passionate about the Kennedy assassination, and the Second World War certainly receives plenty of attention, to the extent that back when the History Channel had any history at all it was basically the “World War II Channel.” The one other major event of broad interest, especially in the South, is the War Between the States, and deservedly so, since this was such a pivotal moment in the American narrative. However, I don’t know as much about the events and people involved as I probably should, beyond what I remember from high school (which was, fortunately, better than many high school history courses) and Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln.

Of course, one problem with all history books is determining which historians are trustworthy. One can have a passionate but reasonable argument about, say, who bears responsibility for starting the First World War; suggesting that Abraham Lincoln was less than a saintly martyr or more than a despicable tyrant, well, those are fightin’ words in many quarters. I don’t really expect authors to be completely free of bias; in fact, I generally trust those who are open about their opinions more than those who claim a distant objectivity. My general approach, then, is going to be to read a small handful of well-known modern historians, provided they don’t go full retard on whatever their ideological opinions are, but to stick primarily to primary sources when I can.

So, to begin this project, I read Noah Andre Trudeau’s biography Robert E. Lee. This is a fairly short (214 pages) overview of Lee’s life, with most of the book focusing on the war years; unsurprisingly, it’s about as much military history as biography. While I don’t value strict disinterestedness as much as many readers do, I do think that Trudeau does a good job treating his subject even-handedly; he obviously respects Lee, but avoids hagiography. He also avoids editorialising on the causes of the war or who was right or wrong. Rather, he focuses on what Lee himself said and did. In this, it reminds me of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, which I read recently, and which also avoided the temptation to signal ideological approval or disapproval (with a few exceptions), but instead approached the subject like a craftsman evaluating a peer’s work.

The book is short and straightforward, more of a sketch than a portrait, so those who have already read a good deal about the war or Lee himself can probably safely skip it, but it does serve as a decent introduction to the topic. That’s fine with me, of course, since this is basically an appetiser for the main course. Next, I’ll read Shelby Foote’s popular three-volume history to get an overview of the war as a whole, then I’ll try to stick to primary sources. I do have a recommendation for Raphael Semmes’s memoir. Of course, I’ll also continue to read other things between books on this subject.…

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Notes on the Third Reich (75 Books – XXVIII)

As one can easily guess, Notes on the Third Reich is Julius Evola’s follow-up to Fascism Viewed from the Right. Both books are similar in their structure and approach, and though both are well worth reading I think only the earlier one is really essential, because it’s more thorough and touches more on the general principles that define the Right. Evola’s criticisms of National Socialism are similar to those he made of Fascism, e.g. its populism, totalitarianism, and racialism, though each of these is much greater in Nazism than its Italian cousin. In fact, one notable difference between the books is the tone; Evola was moderately supportive of Fascism, finding several things to praise, albeit with multiple reservations. Here, though, he is relentlessly critical.

A large part of this criticism is due to Hitler’s obsession with race. Evola clearly does believe that race is real and significant, and comments that “even from the point of view of the Right, a certain balanced consciousness and dignity of ‘race’ can be considered as salutary.” However, he qualifies this by saying that this is “on the condition that we do not excessively emphasise the biological aspect in this ideal, but only if we particularly stress the ‘race of the spirit.’” National Socialism, though, focused almost entirely on the biological aspect of race and never really developed a fully formed worldview, despite some attempts, especially from Himmler and the SS, to do so. On anti-Semitism specifically, while Evola recognises that Jews are well-represented among anti-traditional thinkers and activists, he says that “this activity would never have been possible, unless the terrain had been prepared for quite some time, not by Jews, but by ‘Aryans,’ and often in irreversible terms.”

Related to this is Evola’s criticism of Hitler’s populism. The racial aspect of National Socialism made anyone and everyone who happened to be German out to be an elite of some sort, deservedly or not. This brought about a sense of levelling all Germans of whatever status. While he does praise some aspects of Nazism’s concern for the common man, especially in its protections for small landowners, he also writes, “The presence of a proletarian aspect in Nazism is undeniable, as in the figure of Hitler himself, who had none of the traits of a ‘gentleman,’ of an aristocratic type di razza. This proletarian aspect and even vulgarity of National Socialism was often noticed, especially in Austria after its annexation to the Reich and after the phase of a rash ‘national’ infatuation of Austrians for ‘Greater Germany.’”

Before this turns into another post where I mostly just quote Evola, I’ll just say to go read Fascism Viewed from the Right, then read this. Both books are fairly short and are best read together.…

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Fascism Viewed from the Right (75 Books – XXVI)

The American “Right” is a strange beast. The more one looks outside the bubble of the United States of the past five minutes, the stranger it looks, because what Americans usually call the “Right” is simply the Republican Party, an incoherent coalition of neoconservatives, social conservatives, Tea Partiers, and right-libertarians. What these groups have in common besides opposition to the various groups that make up the Democratic Party’s coalition isn’t at all clear to me. Indeed, it’s not at all clear how most of these are meaningfully “right-wing” at all, except in the relativistic sense of “less liberal than the faculty of Harvard.”

Admittedly, part of this confusion comes from American history (a “Conservative” wants to preserve his country’s traditions, American traditions stem largely from the Founding generation, but the Founding Fathers were Liberal revolutionaries). However, a similar confusion over what exactly constitutes a “right-wing” position seems to exist throughout the Western world. So, how does one figure out a definition of the Right more coherent than “yesteryear’s liberal?” One good method would be reading through Julius Evola’s short book Fascism Viewed from the Right.

Now, obviously the main focus of Evola’s work is an analysis of fascism, which is absurdly, but often, used as a shorthand for the Right as a whole. Since this assumption that the Right simply is fascism is so common, I would strongly recommend reading this just so one can clear up any confusion about what exactly fascism is. Nonetheless, Evola examines Mussolini’s speeches and policies, especially from his twenty years in power, to determine what the fascists did right and wrong from a Rightist perspective (and for those curious, he does occasionally comment on National Socialism, but covers that more thoroughly in another book, Notes on the Third Reich). Evola is difficult to summarise, so I’ll try to give an idea of the work by sharing a few excerpts.…

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Diplomacy (75 Books – XXI)

Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, published in 1994, looks at diplomatic history from Richelieu up to the early 1990’s, focusing on Europe and the United States and especially on the Cold War era. Overall, the book is excellent, and very useful to anyone looking for an introduction to how diplomacy is, and generally ought to be, conducted. Kissinger takes a point of view that reminds me of a craftsman looking at his peers’ work; he avoids moralising for the most part, and instead focuses on whether a particular policy worked or not, and why. For example, while discussing Joseph Stalin, he does mention the enormous death toll of his purges, but is primarily concerned with his relations with the Western powers and analysing his personality and domestic terror only insofar as it affected his foreign policy.

Now, as great as the book is, at 836 pages it’s also a project to get through. By far the best chapters are those covering events up through the Second World War, especially the first few that cover the basic theories of how nations ought to conduct foreign policy, with Richelieu and Bismarck’s Realpolitik and how this compares to Wilsonianism, and the three dealing with the Vietnam War. Of course, Kissinger was personally involved with some of the events he describes, and some of the personal anecdotes he provides are interesting in themselves. The rest of the book isn’t bad, but by then most of the basic conceptual points have been made and illustrated, and how interesting one finds these chapters depends largely on how interested one is in the history of the Cold War.

I should also mention that those of us who prefer a generally non-interventionist style of foreign policy may be annoyed at Kissinger’s occasional implicit and explicit dismissals of that position, mainly by his obvious admiration for Franklin Roosevelt. There are also a few comments that strike me as flattering his mostly American audience by seemingly approving of American Messianism, even though in the other places he criticises this attitude and clearly favours a more realistic approach to foreign policy based primarily in national interest, as was practiced by Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. For instance, at the end of his final chapter on Vietnam where he says, “[T]he sadness of the memories of Indochina should serve to remind us that American unity is both a duty and the hope of the world.”

Those criticisms aside, though, Diplomacy is essential reading for anyone who wants to comment intelligently on foreign policy issues.…

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Propaganda (75 Books – XIX)

So, take a look at this passage:

Who are the men who, without our realizing it, give us our ideas, tell us whom to admire and whom to despise, what to believe about the ownership of public utilities, about the tariff, about the price of rubber, about the Dawes Plan, about immigration; who tell us how our houses should be designed, what furniture we should put in them, what menus we should serve at our table, what kind of shirts we must wear, what sports we should indulge in,what plays we should see, what charities we should support, what pictures we should admire, what slang we should affect, what jokes we should laugh at?

If we set out to make a list of the men and women who, because of their position in public life, might fairly be called the molders of public opinion, we could quickly arrive at an extended list of persons mentioned in “Who’s Who.” […]

Such a list would comprise several thousand persons. But it is well known that many of these leaders are themselves led, sometimes by persons whose names are known to few. Many a congressman, in framing his platform, follows the suggestions of a district boss whom few persons outside the political machines have ever heard of. Eloquent divines may have great influence in their communities, but often take their doctrines from a higher ecclesiastical authority. The presidents of chambers of commerce mold the thought of local business men concerning public issues, but the opinions which they promulgate are usually derived from some national authority. A presidential candidate may be “drafted” in response to “overwhelming popular demand,” but it is well known that his name may be decided upon by half a dozen men sitting around a table in a hotel room.

In its insistence that Americans’ opinions are largely controlled by only “several thousand persons,” it sounds like something from the patriot movement. It’s not quite conspiratorial, though, so perhaps it was written by some other part of the Right, or even certain parts of the Left? However, the tone is not at all polemical, or even critical of what it describes. Indeed, elsewhere the author considers this propaganda to be a positive thing.

The passage comes from Propaganda, written in 1928 by Edward Bernays, a public relations counsel who worked for a number of corporations, as well as for the U.S. Committee on Public Information during the First World War (he was also a nephew of Sigmund Freud; make of that what you will). Throughout the book, Bernays details what propaganda is, how it works, who uses it, and who creates it. Now, in 1928 the term “propaganda” had only relatively recently acquired its negative connotation, and Bernays uses it in a neutral sense throughout; at one point he explains “propaganda is simply the establishing of reciprocal understanding between an individual and a group.” At a glance, this definition seems reasonable, and this is certainly Bernays’s idea of what propaganda ought to be, but despite the author’s attempt to portray the practice in a neutral light, the actual content of the book clearly describes subtly manipulating public opinions, often in ways that appear rather insidious.…

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