The poetry of Hesiod

Theogony And Works And DaysTheogony And Works And Days by Hesiod
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had heard many references to Hesiod but never read him. The two poems (translated mostly as prose) are just about 30 pages and 25 pages respectively, but have a lot packed in: the history of gods and human beings and Hesiod’s comments on how to be a successful farmer. It was interesting to see Hesiod using some of the same or similar epithets for the gods and goddesses that Homer uses in the Iliad.

View all my reviews

Payne on poverty

Framework for Understanding Poverty: A Cognitive ApproachFramework for Understanding Poverty: A Cognitive Approach by Ruby K. Payne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There was a lot of helpful information in the book, and Payne took a balanced approach to the causes of poverty and ways of thinking that go with different class backgrounds. It’s written in a very readable and practical way, but I would have liked more depth and better organization.

View all my reviews

The context of Magna Carta

Magna CartaMagna Carta by Katherine Fischer Drew
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lots of useful information and analysis about a wide range of topics, but I would have organized it differently to help the reader get the goods. The format (context and impacts of the Magna Carta and then biographies of key medieval church and state figures) meant that the same events were described again and again.

View all my reviews

Why did the Shire need to be scoured?

Brian Mattson:

It is no accident that the Fellowship’s journey from Rivendell begins on Christmas Day, the dawn of December 25th. Neither is it incidental that when Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee at long last struggle up the slopes of Mount Doom to destroy Sauron by way of the One Ring, it is March 25th, the traditional ecclesiastical date of Good Friday.

Tolkien’s story is framed by the liturgical calendar, and so the Shire’s scouring is not superfluous. After all, in the “true myth,” Easter victory did not instantly transform the world. The enthronement of the King of kings and Lord of lords had to be announced by his messengers to those kings and lords in distant places, “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”…

Tolkien got it right. Christmas and Easter together do not spell “the end.” There is much work to do. Our own homes, relationships, vocations, thoughts, desires, inclinations, hearts must be scoured and healed by the good news of a new King. Gandalf says, “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. And so shall the rightful king be known.

Bacon and Rousseau go to college

Following Irving Babbitt and connecting his work to C.S. Lewis’s later Abolition of ManRobert Koons portrays the modern university’s incoherent curriculum as descending from the anti-teleological scientific approach of Francis Bacon and the sentiment-based morality of Rousseau. 

Eliot’s elective system at Harvard was in part a curricular consequence of Rousseau’s philosophy. The student is “compelled to be free” by being denied the opportunity to undertake a coherent and well-ordered course of study. As Babbitt notes, Rousseau is essentially the resurrection of ancient Greek sophism. Translated into education, the result is what Babbitt calls “the democracy of studies.” The modern university is a mere cafeteria of courses, with no structure or principle of selection. Plato also predicted this outcome in The Laws (819A): schooling as “encyclopedic smattering and miscellaneous experiment.” Babbitt observes that a bachelor’s degree now means “merely that a man has expended a certain number of units of intellectual energy on a list of elective studies that may range from boiler-making to Bulgarian… a question of intellectual volts and amperes and ohms.”

The elective system has been sold to generations of students as a charter of individual autonomy, freeing each student to devise his own education. In practice, the system empowers professors to abandon anything resembling a coherent, student-centered plan of studies, offering in its place whatever narrow and idiosyncratic courses are most convenient to them, from their perspective as producers of original research. This endless quest for novelty drives professors of literature and history off of the customary highways of great works and great deeds and into the hinterland of minor works by second-rate authors, and the minutiae of everyday life in remote times and places. We professors give little or no thought to selecting subjects that elevate and enrich the moral imagination of the student while giving much thought to subjects that elevate and enrich our own research programs.

The modern synthesis of Bacon and Rousseau represents a Devil’s bargain: Humanists accepted the dominance of the natural sciences and technology in return for a protected role as junior partner, wrapping the naked pursuit of profit with the robes of academic tradition and the artes liberales. In turn, natural scientists protect the humanists from political pressure, freeing them to pursue Rousseauistic liberationism.

It’s important to be careful about giving individual thinkers too much credit, but Koons’ description of this bargain is devastating and largely accurate, I think.

The whole essay details Koons’ thoroughgoing indictments of the modern university system and his proposals for changing it. I’m interested to know what readers think of his analysis.

Abortion, violence, and choice

Some compelling passages from Frederica Mathewes-Greene’s essay on Roe v. Wade from earlier this year:

Once I recognized the inherent violence of abortion, none of the feminist arguments made sense. Like the claim that a fetus is not really a person because it is so small. Well, I’m only 5 foot 1. Women, in general, are smaller than men. Do we really want to advance a principle that big people have more value than small people? That if you catch them before they’ve reached a certain size, it’s all right to kill them?

What about the child who is “unwanted”? It was a basic premise of early feminism that women should not base their sense of worth on whether or not a man “wants” them. We are valuable simply because we are members of the human race, regardless of any other person’s approval. Do we really want to say that “unwanted” people might as well be dead? What about a woman who is “wanted” when she’s young and sexy but less so as she gets older? At what point is it all right to terminate her?…

Many years ago I wrote something in an essay about abortion, and I was surprised that the line got picked up and frequently quoted. I’ve seen it in both pro-life and pro-choice contexts, so it appears to be something both sides agree on.

I wrote, “No one wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg.”

Strange, isn’t it, that both pro-choice and pro-life people agree that is true? Abortion is a horrible and harrowing experience. That women choose it so frequently shows how much worse continuing a pregnancy can be. Essentially, we’ve agreed to surgically alter women so that they can get along in a man’s world. And then expect them to be grateful for it.

Nobody wants to have an abortion. And if nobody wants to have an abortion, why are women doing it, 2,800 times a day? If women doing something 2,800 times daily that they don’t want to do, this is not liberation we’ve won. We are colluding in a strange new form of oppression.

It’s interesting and disturbing (but understandable given the presuppositions operating) that there seems to be pushback from some pro-abortion rights activists against this characterization, that there is nothing to be ashamed of regarding abortion. If I recall correctly, the sign that I’ve seen says, “Abortion on demand and without apology.”

Liberal political theory at its best

Justice as Fairness: A RestatementJustice as Fairness: A Restatement by John Rawls
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Justice as Fairness was released in the final years of Rawls’ life and gives an updated statement of his ideas laid out in A Theory of Justice and other writings. Though I am far from an expert in political philosophy, it seems to me that Rawls does liberal political theory about as well it can be done. Robert Nozick’s praise of Theory in Anarchy, State and Utopia seems fitting for this work as well:

“It is a fountain of illuminating ideas, integrated together into a lovely whole. Political philosophers now must either work within Rawls’ theory or explain why not…. Even those who remain unconvinced after wrestling with Rawls’ systematic vision will learn much from closely studying it. I do not speak only of the Millian sharpening of one’s views in combating (what one takes to be) error. It is impossible to read Rawls’ book without incorporating much, perhaps transmuted, into one’s own deepened view. And it is impossible to finish his book without a new and inspiring vision of what a moral theory may attempt to do and unite; of how beautiful a whole theory can be” (183).

The major weakness of Rawls’ theory (to me) is that it presupposes a liberal constitutional democracy, and builds a theory from there. But this raises the question of how it really speaks to the human experience outside of liberal democracies.

View all my reviews