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Category Archives: Philosophy

I, Hegel: A Poem

I, Hegel
*
*
I, Hegel, wrote an essay today
Comparing Jesus,
And his disciples
With Socrates,
And his.
Jesus emerges from my comparison
As decidedly the inferior teacher
Of ethics.
What does that say
About my Religion?

*

I, Hegel, had a dream today
In which Napoleon
Was offered
One of two paths
In a cold subterranean dungeon:
One of which led to untold riches
And the other to a lost work of Aristotle.
He took the first
Without hesitation.
What does that say
About my Hero?

*

I, Hegel, went on a walk today
When I heard
Two villagers arguing
About metaphysics,
And epistemology.
They talked of Jesus and of Zeus,
Of Mary and of Vampires!
But not a word was told of Kant,
Yet they reached (and easily)
The very same conclusions!
What does that say
About my Teacher?

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2015 in Books, Creative, Philosophy, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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INTERSTELLAR: Do Not Go Humble Into That Good Night

The Science of InterstellarThe Science of Interstellar by Kip S. Thorne

My Rating★★★★☆


DO NOT GO HUMBLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT

 

The book discusses the movie, so it is only fair that I use most of the space to discuss the movie as well. I will discuss the book itself in one of the sections below. To get a better understanding, we can break our discussion it up into three overlapping sections —
The Three aspects of the movie that has to be examined to get at its core Premise:

1. The Future

2. The Science

3. The Dreams

Book Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads); Movie Rating: 9/10 (IMDB)


Caution: Spoilers Ahead; Spoilers Abound

“The overriding question, ‘What might we build tomorrow?’
blinds us to questions of our ongoing responsibilities
for what we built yesterday.”
~ Paul Dourish


THE FUTURE


Scenario

Interstellar is about mankind’s future and about the options we face. It challenges us to think about how we should react to that future.

It starts from the premise that the Earth has been wrecked.

We have become a largely agrarian society, struggling to feed and shelter ourselves. But ours is not a dystopia. Life is still tolerable and in some ways pleasant, with little amenities such as baseball continuing. However, we no longer think big. We no longer aspire to great things. We aspire to little more than just keeping life going.

Humans have coped with their sudden tragedy by shutting down technology, engineering, research and all the marvels of science. This was the only option left to them.

But why this extreme reaction by a species that was not frightened even by Frankenstein’s monster? Presumably science/progress had something to do with unleashing the blight? My guess would be too much monoculture.

Most of them seem to think that the catastrophes are finished, that we humans are securing ourselves in this new world and things may start improving. But in reality the blight is so lethal, and leaps so quickly from crop to crop (there is also a bit of unscientific nonsense about Nitrogen versus Oxygen, but let us not be too critical), that the human race is doomed within the lifetime of Cooper’s grandchildren. The only hope is to start dreaming again. To get back on the Science Bandwagon.

And (thankfully?) there are dreamers, who refuse to give up to this sub-par, non-imaginative existence.

We are explorers, we are adventurers. Humanity is not meant to give up like this, Nolan tells us. And uses Dylan to drive the point home (too many times!).

The prevailing attitude of stopping progress and just focussing on ‘surviving’ is seen to be a regressive step by our intrepid explorers.

Instead our heroes decide to risk it all on a cross-galaxy exploration. To find a new home for humanity, out among the stars.

In the process Nolan also attempts to reverse the message of Kubrick’s Space Odyssey and portray technology as a friend to humanity (TARS), instead of an unknown and volatile threat (as embodied by HAL).


Commentary

This is an eminently plausible future. It is also an eminent plausible reaction to such a future. In face it is very close to what Naomi Oreskes  imagines in her own Near-future scenario: Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. A dictatorial regime, community-based (communist, in fact), strictly controlled, paranoid. We have seen these things before in history, during the dark ages. It is one of our worst nightmares.

A totalitarian govt is pretty much what would be in store in such a future. Freedom comes with trade-offs — the more we can indulge now, the more we restrict humanity later.

The only problem is that by the time we have had time to degrade so much, to feel the hopelessness, to tighten control over a society so much with so less technology, it would probably be too late to be even thinking of interstellar travel.

And that is where the Future that is shown to us breaks down. It shows us an agrarian world that is still capable of inter-planetary travel. That would require a very fast breakdown of things. Fast enough to not let the technology or the knowledge wither away. One bad generation would enough to lose the skills that were required for the Exodus. The plot had to assume an almost impossible fast degeneration and a lot of coincidental happenings in that very small window allowed even in such a world. That is not very realistic.

Lucky we had a miracle to bail us out.

See high-res Here: http://goo.gl/x0eoa


THE SCIENCE


Soft Science

This is where science comes in. Under what scientific capacity we have, and with what technology we can reasonably expect in the near future, we cannot really travel inter-galactic distances in a time span that is remotely realistic, at least for current generations. Nor do we have the cryopreservation methods to take any live humans across such time spans.

And if we were capable of sacrificing our present for the future generations…? Well. Umm. We wouldn’t be in a fix in the first place, would we?

The nearest star (other than our Sun) thought to have a habitable planet is Tau Ceti, 11.9 light-years from Earth, so traveling at light speed you would need 11.9 years to reach it. If there are any habitable planets closer than that, they can’t be much closer.

Voyager 1 is traveling out of the solar system at 17 kilometers per second, having been boosted by gravitational slingshots around Jupiter and Saturn. In Interstellar, the Endurance travels from Earth to Saturn in two years, at an average speed of about 20 kilometers per second.

Even if we imagine an extreme 300 kilometers per second, we would need 5000 years to reach Proxima Centauri (nearest star to earth) and 13,000 years to reach Tau Ceti. Not a pleasant prospect!

Using twenty-first-century technology, we are stuck with thousands of years to reach other solar systems. The only hope (an exceedingly faint hope) for faster interstellar travel, in the event of an earthly disaster, is a wormhole like that in Interstellar, or some other extreme form of spacetime warp.

So a major inter-galactic, centuries-spanning exploration is out of the question.

What then?

Luckily we have the Gods helping us (well, 5 dimensional beings – “them” for short) out.

They make our job a lot easier with a strategically placed wormhole – not too near to rip earth apart, but not so far that we don’t notice it, or will have to spend too much time reaching it. And it takes us to a place with multiple earth-like planets. And we go there on LAZARUS missions (Get it? Christ will walk amongst us at The End of Days — as Technology!). Resurrection itself, no less, is on display here!

Talk about miracles.

“And whoever They are, They appear to be looking out for us. That wormhole lets us travel to other stars. It came along right as we needed it.”

Well, what do you know, we are a lucky species.


Hard Science

I have heard a lot of people criticizing the science behind the movie. To me that is the most acceptable part in the movie. The science mostly makes good sense, except for a few artistic liberties here and there. Also the story was written first and the science was made-to-order. But despite that, it hangs together well.

The movie is exclusively based on a String Theory interpretation of the universe. Most of it won’t make sense unless you accept all the premises required under String Theory.

So we live in a “Brane” inside a “Bulk”. Our universe is the Brane and the Bulk Beings live in higher dimension, in the Bulk. The movie simplifies matters a bit by assuming the Bulk to be in only 1 dimension more than ours, while String Theorists tend to assume 5-6 extra dimensions in the Bulk. Also they are supposed to be curled-up microscopic dimensions, certainly not big enough for Cooper to be floating around in. Nolan didn’t want to confuse a mass audience. Let us accept that as fair.

All this is beautifully explained in the book and reading it will make you respect the rigor and faithfulness to scientific principles that is on view in the movie. Everything (including all those stunning visuals) is modeled based on equations and backed by scientific possibility (speculation at best). The movie allows us to visualize what a wormhole, black-hole, accretion disks, tesseract, world-tubes, etc. would look like IF they were real. And they allow us to do so with scientific rigor. Nolan brings String Theory to spectacular life. So this movie sets a pretty high standard as far as fidelity to science is concerned. Let us give full points for that.

I am wiling to defend most of the science on display in the movie. Please feel free to fire away in the comment section.

They even use realistic equations in the movie. Gotta give points for that too.

Even when the equation is attempting to “solve gravity”. *chuckles*

In short, it is easy to be skeptical of the science, but this companion book does a good job of shooting down most objections you might have and proves how well-founded most o the exotic stuff in the movie is. The really exotic things turn out to be closer to home, in the Future that is depicted and in the Dreams we are being asked to nurture! I started this book being very critical of the movie, looking for weapons to bludgeon it with, but the constant doses of science has softened me up. Reading this book will probably make you respect the movie much more too. Highly recommended.


Artistic Licences

That said, Nolan does take many liberties with science in the movie, but mostly they are for visual effect.

As Kip says, If Chris had followed the dictates of Einstein’s laws, it would have spoiled his movie. So Chris consciously invoked artistic license at some points. Although I’m a scientist and aspire to science accuracy in science fiction, I can’t blame Chris at all. I would have done the same, had I been making the decision. And you’d have thanked me for it.


Truth, Educated Guesses, and Speculations

The science of Interstellar lies in all four domains: Newtonian, relativistic, quantum, and quantum gravity. Correspondingly, some of the science is known to be true, some is an educated guess, and some is speculation.

That is why throughout this book, when discussing the science of Interstellar, Kip has to explain the status of that science—truth, educated guess, or speculation—and he label it so at the beginning of a chapter or section with a symbol:


TO SUM UP

The thing is that a wormhole cant work (they are just not stable enough to be traversable, even if they actually exist — admitted freely in the book, in fact Kip goes so far as to almost admit that Wormholes are the most impossible outrageous idea in the book, and he was also the one responsible for introducing a wormhole into Contact and thus into mass consciousness!), time can’t be fixed, and if you have enough energy/tech to make a new planet habitable, you will definitely have enough to make earth re-habitable!

So we will never actually face a choice — either we will be capable of saving the earth AND colonizing a new planet. Or we will be incapable of both. And if the earth is in a bad enough condition it is unlikely that a true centuries-spanning mission is going to get funding anyway. And if we can fix the planet, how can we choose to leave all the other species behind? (Diversity being so important, as mentioned in the movie — and true genetic diversity should also include species diversity.)

The Science in the Movie DOES NOT matter. Because it is not a question of what is possible, but of what we want to believe in.


Cooper = Christ

This movie is about Miracles & Dreams, not of Science. And, to drive it home, religious hints litter the movie, as pointed out with the Lazarus missions above.

We thus have Cooper in a double role, as a Christ figure who brings God’s message to a Prophet, and also as an Apostle-Prime, who alone has experienced divinity, who is convinced that the miracles are being performed by The Children of Men. That men will become Gods one day, capable of miracles. Get it? The Bulk-beings, the 5-Dimensional Gods are nothing but the Children of Men, conceived immaculately through a Technology-Mary)

“Not yet,” Cooper says, “but one day. Not you and me but people, people who’ve evolved beyond the four dimensions we know.”

Traditionally, when you fall into a black hole, you should get pulled apart, instead the movie itself gets pulled apart by its seams. It was a plot necessity. Of course, our new understanding of singularities allow a slim chance of survival, but certainly not for the Nolan-esque climax. It’s a brave plunge, either way.


THE DREAMS

The real message of the movie might very well be to show how difficult it would be to find an inhabitable planet and get to it, even with plenty of miraculous deus ex machinas thrown in. And we still need to have in source of energy — gravity itself — to have any shot at a humane solution (of transporting everyone instead of having to deal with the rough job of choosing WHO gets to go!)

In the move, it all ends in an optimistic note in COOPER STATION, but what of the Earth? Kip admits in the book that to “harness gravity” to get off the earth would probably require a complete destruction of the planet (through extreme compression).

If they had access to enormous energy, through “solving gravity”, then surely they could have fixed Earth instead? Given the choice between a beautiful Earth and an artificially recreated station (limited by man’s imagination, even if by the imagination of the most brilliant among us), where would you choose to live? What would you choose for your child? Even today, would you rather stay in a magnificently designed IT park imitation or actually go and visit the original? And what of the history, architecture and ecology we have to leave behind? I know what choice I will make. I might make a visit, but I would want come back to earth.


A Cut-And-Run Theme

As an article puts it:

At first glance, Interstellar does seem to have a green message, warning that climate change could make the world uninhabitable for humans (and, presumably, other species). Yet there’s an odd twist. The tag line for the film is, “The end of the Earth will not be the end of us.” And the lead scientist, played by Michael Caine (no longer Alfred the Butler), says at one point: “We are not meant to save the world. We are meant to leave it.” In other words, if humans do trash the planet, don’t worry, some super-smart folks will help us make a nice get-away somewhere else in this swell and expanding universe. Given that Grinspoon researches life and planetary development, I wondered what he thought of this cut-and-run theme.

Once we cut out all the fantasy elements, Interstellar has this dire projection for us:

1. We are ruining the planet

2. We need to look for options to save ourselves.

Now, I have no objection to Humans leaving the Planet. Best case might even be that Humans leave the Planet to save the Planet.

3. But, whatever solutions we want to imagine/implement, we need to do it before it is too late.

By the time it is too late for the planet, it is bound to be too late for our technology too.

Cut-And-Run is not a feasible option. Deus Ex Machina happens only in movies.

As I have repeated many times by now The Science of Interstellar is the least questionable aspect of the movie. Its core premise (the Future & The Dreams) is what is really questionable.

Interstellar operates from a premise that it is never too late as long we keep the flame of exploration and technology alive. It ignores the ethical dilemmas of leaving a planet and most of its inhabitants (including humans) to die. It also ignores the more present question of how to avert a cut-and-run scenario from ever manifesting itself. That is the real question in front of humanity today. By skipping ahead and showing us an imaginary solution to present day problems, Nolan is indulging in a sort of escapism.

Let us just deal with it:

The right dream to have might just be of saving the planet and thus ourselves, and not of leaving it.

The movie was good entertainment and the book does a wonderful job of backing it up scientifically. But having the right dream is important too, to direct Science, which is merely a tool.

Humanity was not meant to die on Earth.
Earth was not meant to die of Humanity either.


VERDICT: THE SCIENCE IS SOLID. THE FUTURE IS SHAKY. AND THE DREAM IS JUST PLAIN STUPID.

Arthur C. Clarke took us on a similar journey in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he asked us uncomfortable questions: Where are we headed? Are we ready to rely on Technology? What hidden dangers lurk in the Highway of Progress?

Nolan instead chooses to allay most of those uncomfortable questions and leaves us with a too simple an answer: Trust in technology, keep the spirit alive and everything will be fine.

I am not sure that is the right message for our times. It needs to be examined, and hence the review. I have done a shoddy job of it, but it is something.

All this is not to indulge in technology-bashing. Our scientific knowledge and our capacity for improvement are still our best bets to continuing survival. But “Solutionism” is not the answer.

This is how “Solutionism” is defined:

“‘Solutionism’ interprets issues as puzzles to which there is a solution, rather than problems to which there may be a response.”
~ Gilles Paquet

We should be optimistic, but only cautiously so. We should not ride headlong into a future we don’t want, expecting a miracle at the end of the lane to bail us out. We should respect science and trust in it, and expect it to not only be a miracle, but also a path-finder. Science should show us the way, it should show us the means to avoid the unwanted future. It should be a companion, not a god-of-last-resort, to which we turn only once we have ruined ourselves by ignoring it.

Let us use science to chart the best course. Let us respect what our scientists tell us instead of allowing our politicians and our run-away consumerist economy to take us to a cliff from which even Science cannot be expected to work a Miracle.

Even though the movie was supposed to be a powerful message about Man’s power, in the end it turns out to be about man’s desperate need for miracles, for easy answers. That is its failure.

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Arthashastra: The Science Of Good Governance

The ArthashastraThe Arthashastra by Kautilya

My Rating★★★★★

THE SCIENCE OF GOOD GOVERNANCE

The Arthashastra is the most comprehensive treatise of statecraft of classical times, and perhaps of all time.

The Arthashastra is written mainly in prose but also incorporates 380 shlokas, which adds a vital poetic flourish to this otherwise down-to-earth classic. The text of this extraordinarily detailed manual contains fifteen books which cover numerous topics viz., the King; a complete code of law; foreign policy; secret services; civic responsibilities, and so on.

In trying to understand Kautilya‘s analysis, we have to keep in mind the fact that in the Kautilyan view, the king encapsulates all the constituents of a state, he has expounded the theory in terms of the king – any king. In other words, what Kautilya calls the ‘interest of the king’ would nowadays be termed ‘National Interest’.

A Note About The Translation

This translation by Rangarajan is a good reference book if you are coming back to Arthashastra for reference, but not particularly good for a first reading. It is too well catalogued and too practical for that. The verses should be read in the order Kautilya arrayed them rather than in this re-arranged fashion that helps to make much better sense of it, but somehow takes away the spirit.

The translation also contains a useful Index of Verses (By Textual Order) — it is meant to assist in finding out in which Part and Section a particular verse of the text has been included.


The Branches Of Knowledge

Traditionally, in classical Indian texts, the four branches of knowledge are considered to be:

1) Philosophy,
2) The Three Vedas,
3) Economics, and
4) The Science of Government

Kautilya tells us that these are, indeed, the four fundamental branches of knowledge because one can know from these four branches of study all that is to be learnt about Dharma [spiritual welfare] and Artha [material well-being]. {1.2.8-9}

Artha, literally wealth, is thus one of four supreme aims prescribed by Classical Indian tradition. However, it has a much wider significance and the material well-being of individuals is just a part of it. The ‘Artha’ of Arthashastra is an all-embracing word with a variety of meanings.  In accordance with this, Kautilya’s Arthashastra maintains that the state or government of a country has a vital role to play in maintaining the material status of both the nation and its people.

The Arthashastra is thus ‘the science of politics’ with a significant part dedicated to the science of economics. It is the art of government in its widest sense — the maintenance of law and order as also of an efficient administrative machinery The subjects covered include: administration; law order and justice; taxation, revenue and expenditure; foreign policy; defense and war. Its three objectives follow one from the other: promotion of the welfare of the subjects leads to acquisition of wealth which, in turn, makes it possible to enlarge the territory by conquest.


The Instruction Manual

The Arthashastra is essentially a treatise on the art of government and is, by nature, instructional. It seeks to instruct all kings and is meant to be useful at all times wherever dharma is held to be pre­eminent. And because it is instructional, it is basis is the practice of government. The majority of the treatise is a Manual of Instruction for kings and officers of the state.

There are three distinct parts in this manual:

1. The Manual of Admi­nistration
describes the organization of the apparatus of the state and prescribes the duties and responsibilities of every key official, either for maintaining order or for collecting revenue. There are, naturally, parts devoted to budgetary control, enforcement of civil service dis­cipline and the public’s civic responsibility.

2. The Code of Law and Justice
covers both civil and criminal law and is, basically, a Penal Code; the extensive and graded penalties and fines prescribed in it have the twin aims of deterring transgressions and collecting revenue for the state.

3. The third part is a Manual of Foreign Policy, the pri­mary aim of which is acquisition of territory by conquest.

These three manuals correspond to the three objectives of the state – wealth, jus­tice and expansion — A stable and prosperous state, which only a just administration can secure, is a prerequisite for accumulation of wealth which is then used to augment the territory.

Justice —> Wealth —> Expansion —> More Wealth, and so on

… as long as Justice is not compromised. Which is why the prime focus of The Arthashastra is good administration that ensures the perpetuation of justice and posterity in the kingdom.


Against Reductionist Arguments

Before we move on, we should face the unfortunate fact that both Kautilya the author and his masterwork the Arthashastra are much misunderstood. Popularly known as Chanakya, he is maligned and often ridiculed as a teacher of unethical, not to say immoral, practices and as an advocate of the theory that ‘the ends justify the means.’ ‘Chanakyan’ has entered Indian vocabulary as the equivalent of ‘Machiavellian’.

Most people know little of what Kautilya actually said in the Arthashastra. The only thing they can recall is the superficial aspects of the ‘mandala’ theory, based on the principles: ‘Every neighboring state is an enemy and the enemy’s enemy is a friend.’ This is, no doubt, almost always valid. Nevertheless, to reduce Kautilya’s theory on foreign policy to just these two observations is to do him a grave injus­tice. Indeed, the theory deals with not just three states, but with a twelve. Here is a sample of how much more nuanced that simple understanding could be, with a little effort:

This popular view is not only simplistic but untrue. A through reading of the treatise is required to appreciate the range and depth of the Arthashastra. It is a pioneering work on statecraft in all its aspects, written at least one thousand five hundred years ago.

Even the condemnation of Kautilya as an unethi­cal teacher and the equivalence established with Machiavelli (itself based on gravely erroneous conception of that great master!) is based on ignorance of his work.

Kautilya’s is always a sane, moderate and balanced view. He placed great emphasis on the welfare of the people. His practical advice is rooted in dharma. But, as a teacher of practical statecraft, he advocated unethical methods in the furtherance of national interest, but always with very strict qualification. But these are often ignored or just plain unknown to the majority.

Just as Kautilya’s important qualifications to his advocacy of unethical methods is often ignored, so is the voluminous evidence in the Arthashastra of his emphasis on welfare, not only of human beings but also of animals. Welfare in the Arthashastra is not just an abstract concept. It covers maintenance of social order, increasing economic activity, protection of livelihood, protection of the weaker sections of the population, prevention of harassment of the subjects, consumer protection and even welfare of slaves and prisoners.

In short, the Arthashastra is a mixture of both what we applaud today and what we consider to be reprehensible. Kautilya has a great deal to say about civic responsibility; the obligation of every householder to take precautions against fire is mentioned; so is a prohibition on cutting trees in public parks. Consumer protection and vigilance against ex­ploitation of the people by government servants are aspects which we consider good. Equally, some of Kautilya’s suggestions will be seen by us as unethical. What is essential is that we understand both aspects and use them to learn history as well as to apply to the modern situations.


The Kautilyan Conception of The State

Dr. Kangle, in his magisterial work on Kautilya, notes that ‘the kind of state control over the economy Arthashastra presupposes is not possible without an efficient administra­tion. We, therefore, find in it a description of an elaborate administra­tive machinery.’

A ruler’s duties in the internal administration of the country are three-fold: raksha or protection of the state from external aggression, palana or maintenance of law and order within the state, and yoga­kshema or safeguarding the welfare of the people. These duties also meant that the King needed an elaborate support system.

The highly centralized Kautilyan state was to be regulated by an elaborate and intricate system as laid out by Kautilya. While at first glance we might think that this high centralization is repulsive, we should also appreciate the difficulties of the time. Most of the empires of the world relied on tight centralization to ensure some degree of success. Also, in Kautilya’s eyes, everything was in the service of one goal: Justice.

The extensive responsibilities of the state for promoting economic wellbeing and preserving law and order demand an equally extensive administrative machinery.  Any text on Arthashastra thus has to contain details of the organization of the civil service as well as the duties and responsibilities of individual officials.

Thus we can see how The Arthashastra was bound to be an elaborate manual that dealt with every minute aspect of administration and daily life.

The Arthashastra is a through discussion on the science of living, along with being a valuable historical document on the conduct of administration. It is thus supremely valuable for the historian but also for a modern political scientist or sociologist or economist or administrator.


A Modern Kautilya

All this shows us how close to modern life and administration the Kautilyan ideas come. Reading ancient books is the best way to rid ourselves of modernist fantasies — except for communication and transport, in the basic institutions, we are still where we were. and it is these two things (advance in communication & transport) that has made our institutions slightly more efficient, but also a lot more complex and thus just as bad at dealing with real things, while giving the illusion of a lot of activity.

The same thing can be said of the role of technology in daily life as well. We can get more things done because we can, but precisely because we can, there are always more things to do.

The Red Queen’s laugh reverberates through our modern lives and modern states.


Reality And The Ideal

The picture of the ideal Kautilyan state that emerges from our discussion above is one of a well-run state, prosperous and bustling with activity. But if we are to comprehend clearly Kautilya’s teachings and apply them judiciously to the modern world, we also have to be aware of the essential characteristics of the work. The treatise is about an ideal state – not that such a state actually ever existed or is even likely to exist now or in the future. To the extent any of the six constituent elements of a state – the ruler, the ministers, the urban and the rural population, the economic power and the military might – differ from the ideals Kautilya has set out, to that extent the advice given by him has to be modified.

I cannot imagine that much would change if a modern Kautilya were to write an Arthashastra today, except that he would have a broader, faster reach, and a better chance of enforcing things. But the basics of what he wants to do would not change much, nor would the how, only the means/instruments of effecting them would be easier., But unless those means are not available to the people, their range also increases, and hence real control would remain as difficult today as it was then.


The Illusion of Governance?

This realization should lead us to wonder why Kautilya attempted such an elaborately and minutely planned state architecture — we should consider the possibility that perhaps this level of intrusion into daily life was required, at least at the planning level, precisely because real control was so impossibly difficult? Maybe the Plan was needed for any semblance of governance? This reminds me strongly of Kafka’s Castle administration and their reliance on the awe of the villagers. Maybe the illusion of minute micro-managed and all-pervasive governance can cover up for the inability to really govern?

Isn’t it the same today?


The Best in the Market

We have seen that the Arthashastra is an exhaustive and detailed inventory of everything a state should do and everything every minor official should do. A more detailed secular constitution of governance and daily life cannot be imagined. With this legacy, it is no wonder that the much less ambitious Indian Constitution is still the longest in the world, the most detailed and most concerned with trying to micro manage the nuts and bolts of administration.

We have also seen how the problems that Kautilya tried to tackle are more or less the same as what modern states fail spectacularly at, even when aided by more gee-whiz technology. And this immutability of problems and of solutions is precisely why the level of detail that Kautilya goes into is still valuable for government officials, administrators and citizens.

A better guidebook has not hit the market yet.

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Posted by on May 15, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution

We Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the ConstitutionWe Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution by Mortimer J. Adler

My Rating★★★★☆

 

The Testaments of Democracy

Adler presents an engaging discussion of what he classes as the three defining documents of the USA — the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution (plus amendments, especially the First Ten amendments – known as the Bill of Rights), and the Gettysburg Address, and their inter-relations, especially between the Declaration and the Constitution.

He calls them the American Testaments, since when interpreted together and in relation to one another, they are like the sacred scriptures of the nation.

Adler claims that through detailed examination and critical exegesis, much can be gained from them.

– From the Declaration — DERIVE the nation’s basic articles of political faith.

– From the Preamble & Amendments — UNDERSTAND the elaboration of these articles of political faith in terms of governmental aims, structures and policies.

– From the Gettysburg Address — give to ourselves a full and rich CONFIRMATION of our faith in these articles. And also in the people who declared, formed the ‘more perfect union’ and perpetuated it.

Best Quote: We are not only the heirs of those people, we ARE those people.

The Parts of the Whole

The first part of the book is devoted to declarations about the importance of learning these three documents – both for understanding the nation and to charting the future course of democracy.

From then on, the book focuses on a minute examination of the three documents.

Before the exegesis commences, Adler indulges in a discussion about two words: Ideas & Ideals.

These two words look alike and sound alike but have different meanings, and form the very core of this book.

To summarize, we can distinguish the two thus:

IDEAS — are to be understood, intellectually and can be theoretical or practical.

IDEALS — are objectives/goals to be striven for, and realized/realizable through action. 

Once an Ideal is realized, it is no longer an ideal. Only realizable goals are ideals, if not they are utopian fantasies. Genuine ideals belong to the realm of the possible.

We need only think of an ideal society to understand that most underlying ideas of any constitution remain unrealized. We have only remotely approximated most ideals, including the practicable ones.

Which is why we need to understand the ideas and their most ideal natures and objectives, to understand how they have served us and how they can serve us further.

Some of the ideas addressed are – equality, inalienable rights, pursuit of happiness, civil rights and human rights, consent of the governed, the dissent of the governed, people (form of by etc) and thus Democracy itself.

Of these ideas, Equality, happiness, etc. generates ideals that are clearly not yet achieved.

Democracy too is an idea that is also an ideal – i.e. not fully realized yet.

After delineating ideas and ideals, proceeds to set out the ideas and then examine if they have been realized and the ideals we need to aspire to realize more fully

The second part of the book is concerned with isolating and explaining the ideas identifiable in the Declaration of Independence & Lincoln’s famous speech. They are only considered as ideas in this section and their more important role as pursuable ideals are discussed only later.

The third part isolates the additional ideas found in the Preamble and then foes on to also consider them as ideals, still on the road to fulfillment.

The Fourth section of the book is devoted to the most important idea of the modern world – the idea of democracy. This is considered in great detail and more importantly, in both political and economic aspects.

Adler says that this idea has only recently been recognized as an ideal. Which is why it requires the fullest possible realization of Political and Economic Justice, Liberty and Equality. We are made to consider also the obstacles to be overcome if a true democracy is to ever be born for the FIRST time in the history of the world.

This was my favorite section of the book — most interesting being the discussion on the economic imperative of true democracy, without which it will always remain an ideal, an idea-in the making. Democracy is not a Political idea, it cannot be attained through political means alone. The goals have to include both political and economic ideals.

The Individual Obligation to Philosophy

Adler wrote this book as an homage to the second centennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence. Mere flag waving, convocations or oratory will not suffice to celebrate such an event and its two centuries of development.

What would instead be a better homage to the idea of democracy is to focus on individual celebrations — by accepting the obligation to understand the ‘testament of the nation.’ I would go further and say that this spirit should be maintained at every election year, and even more, at every democratically vital moment a nation passes through.

I read this to gain that spirit as India prepped for the world’s largest democratic spectacle. In spite of studying the constitution many times, I have always felt that it had to be more than mere study that is expected. Adler has made me realize that it is direct engagement with the core ideas and ideals that is required along with constant reinterpretation of the arguments. That is the only way to make sure that we stay true to the ideals and keep re-charting the course we have taken.

To set out to understand the Ideas & Ideals enshrined in any constitution is nothing less than a philosophical undertaking, and that is what Adler demands of us.

It is true that Adler talks primarily of the American Constitution, but readers from any country can come away from this reading with a better appreciation of how to engage with their own Testaments. We are not merely the heirs of the people who gave them to us, we ARE those people and it is our duty, both to confirm them and to fulfill them.

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Posted by on April 25, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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Plato’s Republic: An Apology

Republic

Republic by Plato

My Rating★★★★★

Is the attempt to determine the way of man’s life so small a matter in your eyes—to determine how life may be passed by each one of us to the greatest advantage? (1.344d)

***

I propose therefore that we inquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them. (2.368e—369a)


The Republic: An Apology

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” 

~ Alfred North Whitehead

The Famous Republic

‘The Republic’ is either reverenced, reviled or just plain ignored. Though it keeps resurfacing, it has been pushed back often, being accused of bigotry, racism, elitism, casteism, anti-democratic nature, the list is endless. But it is beyond doubt, one of the preeminent philosophical works and has been quoted, referenced or adapted by almost all of the major thinkers since.

The ideas of Socrates have had an afterlife that is as long and varied as the thousand year journey envisioned for souls in the famous Story of Er. It is impossible to catalogue the full list of impacts but Whitehead’s quote (introductory to this review) gives adequate flavor. The practical influence of Republic is more difficult to gauge than its impact on the theorizing of later thinkers – over the centuries, individuals have discovered in Plato’s works the inspiration for undertaking political or social or educational reform and have used it as the springboard for much revolutionary thought, and deeds.

Republic has inspired in addition to all the expository analysis, also countless creative interpretations, which have shaped our vision of future possibilities, limits and of extremities. Many depictions of both utopian societies and their dystopian counterparts, ranging from Thomas More’s Utopia to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to George Orwell’s 1984, have their roots in the ideal city brought to life by Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus. Contemporary films such as Gattaca and The Matrix may not owe direct inspiration to Republic, but they participate in a long tradition of artistic works that ultimately trace their concerns back to the political, social, and metaphysical issues raised in Republic.

But in spite of all this, the original work retains a reputation for being difficult and hard to penetrate. This has meant that the scholars have more or less appropriated this brilliantly composed treatise, and that is a pity. There is great suspense in every page as you eagerly try to work your way through Socrates’ arguments… anticipating now, guessing now, failing now, but always on the edge of your seats at the sparkle of his wit and wisdom. The dialogues are constructed with an almost unbelievable care and subtlety. The drama is breathtaking and all-pervading, even in the stock responses to theoretical or rhetorical questions. One is never allowed to sit and absorb passively, but is forced to constantly interact with the dialogue. It is as much fun to read as a Shakespearean drama.

The Offensive Republic

Now, to examine some of the reasons why The Republic offends modern sensibilities:

Much of the contemporary discomfort with Plato’s state arises from his countenancing of censorship, a rigid caste system, etc. But these are in a way unfortunate misunderstandings. A close reading of the text would make clear that these catch-all descriptions of Plato’s state are not as representative as they are made out to be. For example, the caste system that is first to get blamed is hardly a rigid hereditary system, but a strict meritocratic system that is much more equal than anything that we have seen till date. It involves a strict battery of tests (similar to the aptitude tests of today) based on which every individual is to be judged (and opponents of IQ tests may relax – these are meant to be much more practical examinations).

Also, the popular rendering of the title as “The Republic” itself is unfortunate, giving it an obvious political and ideological overtone. In the manuscripts and ancient citations, the title of Republic is given as Politeia (“Constitution”) or Politeiai (“Constitutions”); Peri dikaiou (literally, “concerning that which is just”) is sometimes listed as an alternative title.

The Misunderstood Republic

I had planned on giving a blow by blow defense of the most reviled aspects of The Republic, but that is not the point I wish to make here. The primary mistake in criticizing The Republic is to assume that it was meant to be a political treatise in the first place. It is not. The whole argument begins from a question of identifying what ‘Justice’ is and whether it is beneficial to live a ‘Just Life’. This is the crux. ‘Why’ and ‘How’ to be Just and ‘What’ is this “Justice’ anyway? That is what Socrates wants to explore. He takes detours in this exploration. He uses metaphors – of State (as larger manifestation), of Caves, etc. But they all lead us back to the same basic question.

To identify this basic concern, we need only look at the complex structure of the dialogue itself. Republic’s “narrative” is structured in an almost circular pattern. This circular pattern is complex, evoking the narrative patterns of epic poems such as Iliad and Odyssey. Most basically, the dialogue’s two main concerns (defining justice and ascertaining its relationship to happiness) are treated in two corresponding sections (books 2-4 and books 8-9) that are interrupted by what is nominally a series of digressions in books 5-7, and 10. These nominal digressions, of course, create the dialogue’s most memorable metaphors, but they are meant to be digressions that add to the core. Not the other way around.

At its most basic level, Republic is an effort to forge a consistent and meaningful redefinition of “Justice”. The aretê that is explored lies in nothing outward, but rests solely in the mature reason and regard for what is beneficial to the soul. Not all the details in these allegories stand up to logical analysis, but they are not meant to.

This is made clear by the fact that The Republic’s interlocutors repeatedly draw attention to the incomplete, provisional, and at times unsatisfactory nature of their treatment of justice, happiness, the ideal political community, the theory of the ideas, the cognitive faculties of human beings, etc. The inadequacy of “the method we are employing” is acknowledged at 4.435c-d, at 6.504b-d and in many other places.

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The Personal Constitution: A Constitution of the Perfect Life

The Perfect State sketched out (which is the stub of almost all criticism) is only an approximation devised to arrive at the Perfect Man, and that is why the so called bad aspects can be deemed acceptable. The mistake, as stated already, is to see it as a purely political treatise while it is in fact a treatise on justice and how to live the perfect life – the ‘Constitution’ of a perfect life.

“He will look at the city which is within him, and take heed that no disorder occur in it, such as might arise either from superfluity or from want; and upon this principle he will regulate his property and gain or spend according to his means.”

In the end, the state is not fleshed out enough to really form a complete constitution for any state that can exist in reality (and not just as an idea). But the psychological part (it is curious how this part has generated so much less criticism, in comparison) is – we return in the end (and all the way in between) to the original question of how an individual should order his life – what his virtues should be. It is a political critique piggy-backing on a  personal enquiry and hence any commentary of it cannot treat them differently. Censorship, slaves, aristocracy are all wonderful aspects in an individual but not palatable in a state (to modern eyes). Hence, we can only criticize that the greater to smaller equality is not well realized (i.e. from state => individual). But then Socrates, as above, is always eager to make the point about the provisional nature of his metaphor which is only meant to incite thinking and not as an answer – that is just not the way to deal with true lovers of truth, with true philosophers.

[Cheeky counterproposal by the reviewer’s alter-ego: “Or all the personal stuff is just a convenient cloak for the political criticism that is the real purpose! After all, we cannot forget the historical milieu in which Plato composed it. He had enough axes to grind!”]

Indeed, the more we approach certain aspects of the text from analytic and conceptual standpoints, the more we find that Socrates and his companions make innumerable assumptions and leaps of logic that is not satisfactory or fully justified. Each of these can be fairly scrutinized and contested, and have been. We may raise any number of questions about its relevance to our experiences and value systems. Much of Republic, especially its political philosophy, argument for Censorship and Social structuring, is at odds with modern ideals; some readers will doubtless be dissatisfied with, among other things, its unapologetic elitism and naive (almost laughable) confidence in the integrity of “philosopher-rulers.” Some, however, may find that its critique of ancient Athenian society opens the door to meaningful questions about contemporary cultural practices and priorities. And even more meaningful questions on how to organize our inner impulses and constitution.

Philosopher, Be Thyself

We need to understand that the Platonic Dialogues, in principle, are not meant to represent a simple doctrine that can be followed, they instead are meant to prepare the way for philosophizing. They are not easy guide books to follow. They require work from the reader, above and beyond the ideas presented. That is one of the reasons for the dialogue nature in which they are structured. Plato’s overarching purpose in writing the Republic was to effect a change in his readers similar to the change that Glaucon and Adeimantus undergo at Socrates’ hands in the fictional world of the dialogue. This purpose can be summed up in the word protreptic, from the Greek protrepein, which means “turn (someone) forward,” hence “propel,” “urge on,” “exhort.” Plato uses literary art, which in his case includes but is not limited to philosophical argument, to move his reader toward a greater readiness to adopt a just way of life.

The dialogues are thus intended to perform the function of a living teacher who makes his students think. One must philosophize to understand them. One must look at the microcosm of the dialogues as well as the macrocosm of the world that we inhabit simultaneously to understand them. It is in this process that the dialogues assist, insist and themselves provide a training in.

We can only conclude by asking questions, in the true spirit of the dialectic method:


Can we then say that we are convinced, that justice, as defined by Socrates, is something intrinsically valuable? Are we convinced that the just man can be “happy” even if he does not enjoy a reputation for justice, nor any other material benefit, in this life or after?

OR


Have Socrates and his companions persuaded us that the ideal city-state they describe in Republic is truly the best political community possible? Do we believe that Socrates himself thinks so? Is that what we take away from such a deep examination of how to live our lives? Or do we let the Story of Er guide us back to the truer motives of the interlocutors?

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“I really do not know as yet, but whither the argument may blow, thither we go.”

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Posted by on January 6, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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The Road to Wigan Pier & 1984: A Parallel Analysis on George Orwell

The Road to Wigan PierThe Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

My Rating★★★★★

The Road to Wigan Pier & 1984: A Parallel Analysis

Commissioned fortuitously in the period when Socialism was on the retreat and Fascism on the rise, Orwell must already have begun to glimpse the world which he was to envision with vigorous clarity in ‘1984’. This review is a dual review then, of ‘1984’ and of ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’.

Written ostensibly as a documentary-report on the life of the working classes in the industrial towns of england, Orwell uses his reportage to investigate two crucial questions:

1. Why class differences persist even when the means exist to destroy them
2. Why socialism is failing practically and intellectually even as the moral facet (of it rectitude) is irrefutable (to his mind, at least)

The reader has to be warned that The Road to Wigan Pier can seem a bit rambling (or circuitous!) at times but is in fact a tight composition and has been echoed by many writers since Orwell.

The structure of the piece is quite elegant:

In the first section, Orwell provides a direct detailing of the life in the ‘industrial towns’, of the proletariat, of the toiling classes. It is evocative and reminded me strongly of Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity in depth of detail and emotional involvement. It is a quick tour but captures the essential cruelties and degradation of life – rotten housing, lack of toilets, unemployment – and the complete hopelessness of it all. But just as Boo does later, Orwell also manages to convey that it is not due to the people, it is purely due to the conditions imposed on them. Orwell is very careful to drill this point home. It is the situations that make the classes.

This is exactly what I expected from the title of the book though I had also been resigned to some amount of political commentary, Orwell being Orwell. But soon the real purpose of the book starts to take shape and for a while I felt disappointed. But Orwell soon reveals the purpose behind is autobiographical excursions in the second part of the book and now I have come to regard this second section as the most vital. It is a narrative technique which I am now starting to notice in a number of other authors trying to grapple with class differences, including Suketu Mehta in Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, trying to come to terms with a riven Bombay.

So, in this second, and to me most important, section, Orwell exposes his own biases and prejudices through a frank autobiographical study. He opens up his own upbringing to show how prejudices creep in and establish themselves in our psyche and never let go no matter ho hard we hammer at them. Situating himself as a symbol of the middle class, Orwell uses this sketch to convey how we are all prey to such class prejudices and that we need to work within our own limitations and especially of the one’s we are trying to convert to the specialist cause (by we, I mean the Left Book Club – the intended audience of the book). He uses the pungent example of ‘lower classes smell’ as an irrevocable class barrier. This has come under much criticism but it is important to keep in mind that it is only and example, he could have gone with the ‘non-pronouncement of the ‘H’s’ or any other minor but hard to avoid detail. To criticize the choice of detail is besides the point.

Then comes the last section: the fulmination and the grand rhetoric. This section is the hardest to agree with and feels the most dated to the modern reader. Orwell tries to examine his second major point – Why is Socialism Declining? His answer is that it is because it is associated with mindless mechanized progress – due to the wrong instruments of propaganda which are turning away all the right sort of people and bringing only the ‘quacks’ into the socialist circles. Instead, to win the all-out and most important war against Fascism (which is, Orwell asserts, at the Gates), the Socialists need to forget class propaganda, accept that class prejudices will take longer to disappear (as elucidated in the previous section) and focus on the principles of ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’, which Orwell is sure will bring all the moral and intelligent people into Socialism. Only by asserting this moral core of Socialism, stripped of class propaganda, can the scales be tipped in favor of Socialism and away from Fascism. Now the humanistic picture of the depravations of the first section are resurrected in another light and Orwell presents both the class-proletariats as well as the ‘economic-proletariats’ (i.e, people like himself, born to a higher class but earning only the equal of an industrial worker), as mow likely to tend towards fascism, if for no other reason but self-preservation. Socialism needs to bring these classes into its fold. That is the crying need of the day.

“And then perhaps this misery of class-prejudice will fade away, and we of the sinking middle class … may sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose but our aitches (‘H’s).”

The Literary Lens / The 1984 Reappraisal

The conclusions advocated by Orwell must seem too simplistic to modern ex-post readers, but there is another angle to be explored here that is not political in nature. This arises from the fact that this exposition was published before either 1984 or Animal Farm and after Brave New World. Orwell is quite clear that the Utopia (or Dystopia, or better, Utopia Caricatured) envisioned as the end goal of socialist progress in Brave New World is the very core of intelligent man’s revulsion towards Socialism – arising organically due to associations with ‘softness’ and degradation. Orwell needed to show the other extreme to turn this revulsion on its head.

We often compare Brave New World and 1984 as if they were alternate predictions and give marks to Huxley for having predicted better. But this misses Orwell’s point.

Orwell wanted to show the other extreme – the purely Fascist Dystopia – to bring around the people who were revolted by Brave New World and similar Utopian visions that were doing the rounds then (such as The Dream and Men Like Gods). Orwell calls these visions of the future that is based on mechanical progress as
“the paradise of little fat men” – 
which he admits was “aptly caricatured by Huxley in Brave New World”.

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You can also think of the caricature in the Wall-E movie for a better visualized reference. Orwell gives a grand argument, based on how the purpose of machines is to make human life easier and thus softer, to show how the Wall-E future is pretty much inevitable according to this conception of progress. He needed to present the antithesis to this vision – 1984. No matter how bad the caricature of the socialist progress, the Fascist one is surely the one to avoid. 1984 was the rubbing in of this idea, already set forth in 1937 with The Road to Wigan Pier, more than a decade before the fictional attack became unavoidable for Orwell.

Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis. ‘Boom’, said the Three Sisters.

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And, if we can claim that Orwell’s prophesy is today less imminent than Huxley’s, then Orwell wins The Battle of ‘Who Can Scare Them Most’.

Well done, Orwell, you turned the course.
Huxley, you needed to scare us more – we are headed there fast, still.

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Posted by on December 21, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche: Apollo Vs Dionysus: A Darwinian Drama

The Birth of Tragedy (Complete Works)The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche

My Rating★★★★★

Apollo Vs Dionysus: A Darwinian Drama

Nietzsche never struck me as a real philosopher. He was too much the story-teller.

This is probably his most a-philosophical (?) works. But it is my favorite. It was the most accessible to me and it was the most relevant of his works. It helped me form my own convictions. It was universal and yet not choke full of platitudes. It was forceful but not descending into loud (almost incomprehensible) invectives. (you know which works I subtly allude to)

‘Birth of Tragedy’ was his first major work and to me (in contradiction of the previous paragraph) his most philosophical. It seems to me to be the very soul of his philosophy – that was then refined and reformed in the fire of his (self-imposed?) suffering. The later philosophy is the ‘Nietzschian’ one – grand and too powerful to ignore. But, this earlier core is, to me, the real beauty that livens all the later fury.

Nietzsche, already in this, his first work (ostensibly on the source of Greek tragedy), set Dionysus (the god of vitality, ecstasy, thriving life, and of wine) against Apollo (the god of tranquillity, logic, and of contemplation).

According to Nietzsche, in Greek tragedy as in life, it is the unruly chorus who represented Dionysus and was a crying-out of humanity (the species) itself. Apollo, on the other hand, was represented by the human actors and expressed himself through the orderly dialogue. Apollo was designed to be noticed – the conscious story. Dionysus was designed to be evoked – the collective unconscious?

In this early core of Nietzschian philosophy, a philosophy of species vs individuals, of species evolution pitted against human vanity, Dionysus is the strength of the human race, of life itself (vide Darwin) but manifests only as mere background to any given human drama (but still the source of all drama and is THE actual Drama).

Apollo, in contrast, is expressed in any given human drama (composed or lived) – important and represented and thought about. But, always about mere individuals, weak and mortal.

With this early work Nietzsche leapt into the depths and all the later developments was a climb back and proclamations of the reality of the Deep. He adored and embraced the tragic sensibility which is the condition for man – of adoration of life and of its cruel laws, despite all the weakness of the individual – the real genesis of the Superman.

Disclaimer #1: Written more than a year after the original reading and after only a cursory re-reading/re-glancing. Please trust the reviewer when he asserts that the work is powerful enough to stay fresh-to-review even after a year has passed.

Disclaimer #2: Required Expansion of Essay: ‘The Superman as The Buddha: The Inevitable Evolution of Tragic Consciousness’

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Posted by on December 17, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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