Category: philosophy

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 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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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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What’s the Appeal of Mishima Yukio?

SFA222007830A while back, while visiting a friend of mine, I mentioned having recently re-watched Paul Schrader’s fascinating biographical film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. He had never heard of Mishima Yukio, and after explaining that he’s famous as one of Japan’s greatest novelists and infamous for committing suicide in spectacular fashion in 1970, he asked why I had such obvious admiration for a man who committed suicide, which, being a faithful Catholic, I consider to be an inherently evil action.

It’s a fair question, and one that I could have dodged by saying I just like his novels. I certainly do love his novels, but that isn’t what first attracted me to his work. Rather, my first exposure to him came in my days as a college-age delinquent. He was one of a handful of authors in the university library’s small section for Japanese language and literature, and since I didn’t have a lot of time I grabbed the shortest book there, Sun and Steel.…

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A Critique of Democracy (75 Books – XII)

Is “anything and everything” too broad of a topic for a web log? I suppose that’s what my blog name implies, but after writing mostly about animation and the occasional novel or graphic novel for a couple years, I’ve felt odd writing about works of history in the last month, and now I’m branching out even further.

Well, I’ll consider starting a second blog or something if people complain.

Anway, the twelfth book of the year is the rarest thing of all for me to cover: a new release. Michael Anissimov published his e-book A Critique of Democracy: A Guide for Neoreactionaries only about a week ago. Since I’ve already finished books on the Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, and an e-book collection of Sir Robert Filmer’s works, it seemed on-topic enough to take a detour from The Guns of August.…

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75 Books in 2015 – VI (In Praise of Shadows)

Tanizaki Junichiro’s In Praise of Shadows is ostensibly a book-length essay in defense of traditional Japanese aesthetics, especially in architecture. He doesn’t really present a formal argument, though; instead, he presents a series of ruminations and anecdotes on topics loosely related to the main idea of the importance of shadows, darkness, and quiet in Japanese architecture. The book reminds me of taking a short, meandering walk with someone through their garden, as they relate some story of each place you come across. Some subjects include cuisine, noh and kabuki theatre, restaurant lighting, and toilets. I found this style interesting, even persuasive, but it may be the sort of “argument” that you either get or you don’t.

The book is so short, under fifty pages, that there’s no excuse not to read it if you have any interest in Japanese culture, aesthetics, or architecture, and the book’s a pleasure to read. Just to give a feel for the book, here’s Tanizaki on gold used in a priest’s garments:

I have said that lacquerware decorated in gold was made to be seen in the dark; and for this same reason were the fabrics of the past so lavishly woven of threads of silver and gold. The priest’s surplice of gold brocade is perhaps the best example. In most of our city temples, catering to the masses as they do, the main hall will be brightly lit, and these garments of gold will seem merely gaudy. No matter how venerable a man the priest may be, his robes will convey no sense of his dignity. But when you attend a service at an old temple, conducted after the ancient ritual, you see how perfectly the gold harmonizes with the wrinkled skin of the old priest and the flickering light of the altar lamps, and how much it contributes to the solemnity of the occasion. As with the lacquerware, the bold patterns remain for the most part hidden in darkness; only occasionally does a bit of gold or silver gleam forth.

One more excerpt, this time from his discussion of why the Japanese prefer their darker aesthetic, whereas Westerners try to bring in as much light as possible in their architecture:

But what produces such differences in taste? In my opinion it is this: we Orientals tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light – his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.

So, that’s six books for the year. Next up are a couple volumes of Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin. After that, I’m not sure, but probably it’ll be more history.…

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Mishima’s ‘Sun and Steel’

Mishima Yukio has quickly become one of my favourite authors. The hardest part of writing a post about him, though, is probably deciding just what to focus on, as he was tremendously prolific. In his 20-year career, he averaged at least one full novel a year, one full play a year, several short plays and short stories, as well as some essays and poems. I suppose the best place to start would be Sun and Steel, where he explains the philosophy and aesthetic that underlies his novels.

The central problem Mishima confronts is how to reconcile words, which I understand as analagous to mind or spirit, with the body, the physical world which does not depend on words and which words often cannot describe. The former he felt he mastered at a young age. After all, he made his living as a novelist, read widely, and was naturally introverted as a child.

The body he began to understand only gradually, through a handful of experiences. He relates how, as a child, he would watch religious processions of young men carrying mikoshi (portable shrines) through town, and noticed that they all looked up toward the sky as though experiencing an epiphany. He wondered what they saw and thought. Years later, he took part in such a procession, and as he felt the weight of the mikoshi on his shoulders and began marching in step with the other young men, he realised what they had all been thinking: nothing at all. They were merely gazing at the sun.

When I first read that story, it struck me as anticlimactic. However, I think it relates partly to an older Japanese tradition. Famed swordfighter Miyamoto Musashi noted (in his Book of the Five Rings) that a skilled warrior does not consciously plan his moves, but acts and reacts to an opponent by a kind of instinct. Miyamoto and Mishima refer to a kind of knowledge that does not rely on the intellect, and which words cannot quite adequately describe. While many philosophies (e.g., Confucianism) urge cultivation of the intellect, they often neglect this physical knowledge which, according to Mishima properly forms fully half of human experience.

So, to be a full man, one must cultivate both the body and the intellect. After a man’s gotten a library card and gym membership, though, what should he do next? Is there a way to reconcile these two types of knowledge? The question persists through several of his novels to varying extents. See, for example, Runaway Horses, the second book in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy. The story takes place in pre-World War II Japan, and the protaganist, Iinuma Isao, has mastered control of his body through kendo, and has also kept his spirit completely pure. This purity leads him to decide that he must, somehow, serve the emperor by protecting him from the corrupted politicians and capitalists who control Japan. His purity gives him the will and his body gives him the ability to act, and his solution is to gather like-minded comrades and then assassinate certain key figures, then commit suicide after accomplishing that mission. They hoped that their own dramatic action would inspire the rest of the nation to demand a restoration of imperial authority.

One could also relate this, of course, to Mishima’s own decision to commit suicide, and in spectacular fashion at that. Along with a few followers, he took over a military office, demanded the restoration of imperial power, and then committed suicide. His inspiration came from words, his action from the body.


(image taken from Wikimedia Commons)

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