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Imperialism: The Darwinian Justification

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the WorldThe Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

Imperialism: The Darwinian Justification

Ferguson contends that today’s financial world is the result of four millennia of economic evolution. It is very important to the aims of this book that this metaphor is accepted. Ferguson looks at this evolution of money into the complicated financial ecosystem of today. He explores how money mutated into new tools/organisms and acquired characteristics that allowed it to meet the needs of its users/demands of its environment better. The tools that helped men make even more money or harness their own energies more efficiently were selected for as ‘fittest’ and soon took over the monetary environment.

This happened in fits and starts:

First came the invention of money itself, which is not given much attention to, probably because it is too shrouded in the mists of time (and also because the West has no unique claim on it, at any of its stages – even the more advanced forms). Then it started mutating into its various forms, conquering and occupying various niches according to functionality.

And according to Ferguson, the civilizations who had access to these new and more efficient tools were hugely benefitted and in many cases were at a decisive advantage, down to our day.

The Evolutionary Stages

1. Banks

Money, once it allowed quantification of the value of transactions soon led naturally to delayed payments and then to the institutions of lending and borrowing. These slowly grew to become banks, clearing houses for ever larger aggregations of borrowing and lending.

2. Bonds

The rulers and the lords were the biggest customers of the banks. In time governments that figured out how to utilize the credit market best thrived and their innovations led to government bonds and securitization of streams of interest payments. This matured into full-fledged bond markets by the 13th century. The rulers had great incentive to protect and regulate this amazing new source of funding! This led those governments most dependent on these markets to institute regulated public markets so as to maintain stability and security of transaction, which was in their own best interests. Transaction and discovery costs reduced drastically and areas with such markets proved extremely useful to their rulers, who could no raise money for wars much more effectively. Battles were now to be won and lost in the bond markets.

3. Stock Markets

By the seventeenth century, corporations started aping the states, a process that was not limited to only financial matters, and started to raise equity through share markets. This could only develop first in areas with already well developed bond markets and public markets and thus gave them a further advantage — the advantage derived from the financial tools now extended from wars to trade and industry. The West was rising buoyed by its financial innovations, in Ferguson’s view.

4. Insurance

With the institutions of bonds and shares prospering, the next step was to use the market to spread risk out. insurance funds and then pension funds exploited economies of scale and the laws of averages to provide financial protection against calculable risk. The corporations now had another decisive advantage in being able to have access to protection against risk and in a world where financial risk was the biggest danger any advantage there could prove world-conquering. The accumulation of financial innovations had already tipped the balance for the West and was now on its way to helping them conquer the world.

5. Real Estate

With the rise of more innovative instruments such as futures, options and other derivatives, it was now possible to increase leverage, not only for governments and corporations, but also for individual households. With government encouragement they soon increased their leverage and used that to invest more and more in real estate. This helped the western countries to have a larger and larger propertied class helping them to transition the into property-owning democracies, which, according to Ferguson, are the most robust sort.

6. Imperialism and Globalization: The Justified Culmination

Now we come to the crux of the narrative — Economies that combined all these institutional innovations – banks, bond markets, stock markets, insurance and property-owning democracy – performed better over the long run than those that did not, because financial intermediation generally permits a more efficient allocation of resources than, say, feudalism or central planning. The financial ecosystem evolved in the West was the best suited for governance and for human civilization in general. And it is for this reason that the Western financial model tended to spread around the world, first in the guise of imperialism, then in the guise of globalization, and has been vital for all sorts of progress achieved around the world — from the advance of science, the spread of law, mankind’s escape from the drudgery of subsistence agriculture and the misery of the Malthusian trap.

Ferguson has narrated the history of money as a financial evolution and thus given it the air of inevitable complexity and of progress. This makes it seem like the adoption of the ‘evolved’ financial system first by the West and them by the Rest is but a logical and inevitable choice that is for the best of the world at large.

It is noteworthy that Ferguson makes a point of using elaborate evolutionary metaphors to project the history of financial institutions in a Darwinian light.

Why?

According to this interpretation, financial history is essentially the result of institutional mutation and natural selection: Random ‘drift’ (innovations/ mutations that are not promoted by natural selection, but just happen) and ‘flow’ (innovations/mutations that are caused when, say, American practices are adopted by Chinese banks) play a part. There can also be ‘co-evolution’, when different financial species work and adapt together (like hedge funds and their prime brokers).

But market selection is the main driver. Financial organisms are in competition with one another for finite resources. At certain times and in certain places, certain species may become dominant. But innovations by competitor species, or the emergence of altogether new species, prevent any permanent hierarchy or monoculture from emerging. Broadly speaking, the law of the survival of the fittest applies. Institutions with a ‘selfish gene’ that is good at self-replication and self-perpetuation will tend to proliferate and endure.

As we can see there are certain key themes here:

a. That the survived institutions have to accepted as ‘fittest’ under Ferguson’s interpretation, and

b. That ‘selfishness’ of institutions/genes are rewarding for the species/humanity in the long run. So we should encourage the selfish imperialism of countries/the globalization of corporations today.

These are specious themes that are present in this book with a specific agenda, trying to escape notice by being presented in pseudoscientific light. And as we have seen from our discussion of how Ferguson uses the history of finance to show us how Imperialism was a good thing for the rest of the world, we can safely slot this book as another among Ferguson’s life-long attempts to come up with innovative apologetics for Empire.

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Posted by on June 7, 2015 in Book Reviews, Books, Economics, Thoughts

 

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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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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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Dreaming The Perfect Library, with Alberto Manguel

The Library at NightThe Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

My Rating★★★★☆

Dreaming The Perfect LIBRARY

The Quest & The Question

The starting point, Manguel says is a question. Few today can doubt that the main features of our universe are its dearth of meaning and lack of discernible purpose.

And yet, with bewildering optimism, we continue to assemble whatever scraps of information we can gather in scrolls and books and computer chips, on shelf after library shelf, whether material, virtual or otherwise, pathetically intent on lending the world a semblance of sense and order, while knowing perfectly well that, however much we’d like to believe the contrary, our pursuits are sadly doomed to failure.

Why then do we do it? Admitting from the start that the question would most likely remain unanswered, Manguel embarks on it for its own sake. This book is the story of that quest, “an account of my astonishment”, as Manguel says — and it is an astonishing journey for the readers as well.

“Surely we should find it both touching and inspiriting,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson over a century ago, “that in a field from which success is banished, our race should not cease to labour.”

Dreaming The Perfect LIBRARY

THE LIBRARY is a lot of things. And since it is quixotic by definition, this reader will now follow a future dream Library as Manguel traces his past, real libraries.

THE LIBRARY AS MYTH — It should be capable of eliciting in this reader the loftiest of all possible sensations, the sense of the sublime.

Manguel talks of the two great information-gathering projects of Mankind: The Library of Alexandria and The Tower of Babel. These two tower over the rest of the book, constantly reminding the reader and the writer about the magnificent and utile quest that mankind loves to keep re-embraking on.

THE LIBRARY AS ORDER — can a library ever have any meaningful order?

Subjects upon subjects, each of these subjects will require a classification within its classification. At a certain point in the ordering, out of fatigue, boredom or frustration, this geometrical progression might stop. But the possibility of continuing it is always there. There are no final categories in a library.

For this reader, the only consolation is that a private Library, at best, unlike a public one, presents the minor release of allowing a whimsical and highly personal classification. That is enough.

THE LIBRARY AS SPACE — Space is never enough a books never stop coming in

Ultimately, the number of books always exceeds the space they are granted. This reader wishes for a Library designed on The Brain, using folds and infolds to enfold a million books.

In the second chapter of Sylvie and Bruno, Lewis Carroll dreamt up the following solution: “If we could only apply that Rule to books! You know, in finding the Least Common Multiple, we strike out a quantity wherever it occurs, except in the term where it is raised to its highest power. So we should have to erase every recorded thought, except in the sentence where it is expressed with the greatest intensity.” 

His companion objects: “Some books would be reduced to blank paper, I’m afraid!” “They would,” the narrator admits. “Most libraries would be terribly diminished in bulk. But just think what they would gain in quality!”

THE LIBRARY AS POWER — The invested power of the written word, thrills this reader. Empires can’t stop building libraries and people cannot stop authoring memoirs. They are the only real sources of lasting power. The Library left behind and the books written, they shall define this reader’s legacy.

THE LIBRARY AS SHADOW —  If every library is in some sense a reflection of its readers, it is also an image of that which we are not, and cannot be.

Every library is a shadow, by definition the result of choice, and necessarily limited in its scope. And every choice excludes another, the choice not made. The act of reading parallels endlessly the act of censorship.

This reader imagines a Library where the censorship is total and the reader is a dictator, a benevolent one.

(This chapter includes a sad tour of The History of Censorship.)

THE LIBRARY AS SHAPE — “Every librarian is, up to a certain point, an architect,” observed Michel Melot, director of the Centre Pompidou Library in Paris. “He builds up his collection as an ensemble through which the reader must find a path, discover his own self, and live.”

This reader has already said that his Library will be modeled on The Brain.

THE LIBRARY AS CHANCE — A library is not only a place of both order and chaos; it is also the realm of chance. Left unattended, books cluster around what Henry James called a “general intention” that often escapes readers: “the string the pearls were strung on, the buried treasure, the figure in the carpet.” Isaac Asimov, anyone?

This reader imagines a Library where the books are left to cluster by chance and then picked up cluster-by-cluster and put back with their intellectual soul-mates.

THE LIBRARY AS WORKSHOP — The place where you read, and the place where you work. A history of the ‘study’.

This reader imagines a cozy nook, nudged within the Library, form where the grandeur is glimpsed but not enough for intimidation. At reach, still far enough away.

In 1929, Virginia Woolf published her now famous lectures on “Women and Fiction” under the title A Room of One’s Own, and there she defined forever our need for a private space for reading and writing: “The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his experience with perfect fullness. There must be freedom and there must be peace.” And she added, “Not a wheel must grate, not a light glimmer. The curtains must be close drawn.” As if it were night.

A study lends its owner, its privileged reader, what Seneca called euthymia, a Greek word which Seneca explained means “well-being of the soul,” and which he translated as “tranquillitas.” Every study ultimately aspires to euthymia.

Euthymia, memory without distraction, the intimacy of a reading time — This reader can hardly imagine a more perfect Paradise.

THE LIBRARY AS MIND —What makes a library a reflection of its owner is not merely the choice of the titles themselves, but the mesh of associations implied in the choice.

This reader too will generally know the position of any book by recalling the Library’s layout.

The remembered order will follow the patterns of my mind, the shape and division of the Library ordered just so by me — and the Library will in turn reflect the configuration of my mind.

THE LIBRARY AS ISLAND — The Library, each book in it will be a newly discovered island.

To be the first to enter Circe’s cave, the first to hear Ulysses call himself Nobody, is every reader’s secret wish, granted over and over, generation after generation, to those who open the Odyssey for the first time.

This reader accepts that Libraries are not, never will be, used by everyone. Even in the most fantastically educated and cultured cities, the number of those for whom reading books is of the essence has always been very small.

What varies is not the proportions of these two groups of humanity, but the way in which different societies regard the book and the art of reading. And here the distinction between the book enthroned and the book read comes again into play. This reader’s Library will have no books enthroned, but all arrayed to be read.

THE LIBRARY AS SURVIVAL — On the destruction of books, by burning, drowning and other means. And On Survival

This reader likes to envisage his Library as a magnificent ark that will sail across the ocean of forgetfulness that embraces humanity.

THE LIBRARY AS OBLIVION — Oblivion through enforced illiteracy; Lost books, lost libraries; Displaced

This reader rejects this possibility.

THE LIBRARY AS IMAGINATION — The collecting of imaginary books is an ancient occupation.

This reader is sure that his Library will have as many imaginary books as real ones.

THE LIBRARY AS IDENTITY — Library can be more than a reflection of just personal identity.

In a similar fashion, the identity of a society, or a national identity, can be mirrored by a library, by an assembly of titles that, practically and symbolically, serves as our collective definition.

This reader’s Library should be a pride for the community and beyond.

THE LIBRARY AS HOME — A library can be as nourishing as a loving home.

For this reader, his Library is his umbilicus mundi, the navel of his world, the landscape that feeds his imagination, if not his body.

The splendidly cosmopolitan Library of this reader will, in turn, also ensure that the whole world is present right there. He will be at home in his Library and it will also be his World-at-Home

To be One With The LIBRARY

 The conceit that what we can know of reality is an imagination made of language—all this finds its material manifestation
in that self-portrait we call a library.
And our love for it, and our lust to see more of it, and our pride in its accomplishments as we wander through shelves full of books that promise more and more delights, are among our happiest, most moving proofs of possessing, in spite of all the miseries and sorrows of this life, a more intimate, consolatory, perhaps redeeming faith in a method behind the madness than any jealous deity could wish upon us.

Dreaming of the Perfect Library can be therapeutic. Try it.

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Posted by on May 11, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, 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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War is Boring: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to ArmsA Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

My Rating★★★★☆


War is Boring

Hemingway’s narrator writes not as a soldier but as a journalist-soldier, channeling Hemingway himself, recording with precision and apparent objectivity the things that happen around him and to him – practical and prosaic and always pragmatic about everything. People die and bombs explode in the same paragraph as the one where breakfast was considered with equal interest, and he takes it all in his stride.

As best as I can tell, the action of A Farewell to Arms takes place from 1916 and before the end of the war. Place references and political references come and go without troubling the narrator too much – he is not to be bothered with such details. His context is not simply this war, but all wars and the notions of honor, heroism and patriotism – all of which he looks at with pristine incomprehension.

War always generates backlash, even from the Mahabharata and the Iliad to the many anti-war epics over the ages – the honor and glory that war is supposed to provide is questioned in its aftermath. The bloodlust and the fever-pitch cries of honor precedes war and then they calm down into searching questions about what those terms mean or into scathing parodies.

I am not entirely sure whether Farewell to Arms is a sober questioning of these virtues or a shambolic parody of them. It is never quite clear whether Hemingway is making fun of war or just expressing profound ennui. Especially when he combines Love with War, and both seem to get the same treatment, it becomes even harder to deduce whether Hemingway is ridiculing war and its virtues or life and its delusions in general and including love also into it. After all, the famous ending doesn’t leave us with much to pick up the pieces after.

The narrator tells the often ugly truth about war, without even trying to be anti-war in any way. By depicting daily life, he achieves it without an effort. It is the prosaicness of action, the utter lack of drama that becomes the most significant force in the narration – even his injury is incurred not in valorous combat but while he is eating spaghetti.

All this combines to show up war as a hideous game, but one entirely not worth the bother. There are so many subtle ways in which he trivializes war, always retaining the impression that it is not a conscious effort, as if he was not even telling us anything about the war, letting it remain in the background as a boring humm.

“The war seemed as far away as the football games of some one else’s college.”

We are not even allowed particularly intelligent characters to liven up the drudgery of our reading, the novel is full of the Ordinary, the exceptional striking in its absence – and the readers are left disoriented, repeatedly trying to remind themselves that they are in the midst of the greatest and most destructive war humanity had yet known.

In the end, war is exposed as not only meaningless but boring. Usually war writers exploit the Pathos of war, Hemingway walks right inside, shows us around and escorts us out after having shown us the utter blandness of the ‘heroic’ exercise.

Even the “Love Story” is constructed out of the boring bits and of repeated bland conversations that seem almost never-ending and droll. Here Hemingway is probably playing us again: instead of the usual technique of showing the pleasant bucolic scenery of distant daily-life and contrasting that against gory war scenes and thus asking the reader to thirst for the war to end, Hemingway places both the personal and the public sphere next to each other, exposes both and yet somehow derides war through this. I am not yet sure how he does that, but my feelings wherever I encountered this tells me that he does it well.

Hemingway’s notorious fault is the monotony of repetition, and he has always been considered a better short story writer than novelist – the short form plays into his prowess for portraying ironies in short staccato beats. In A Farewell to Arms, he brings both his strengths and weakness as a storyteller and makes them both work for him masterfully. He converts the act of boring the reader into an art form and into an exercise in supreme irony. Very effective. Almost as effective as comedy, if you ask me.

While it is hard to interpret A Farewell to Arms as hopeful, to me it was so, though in a subtle way. It leaves us the hope that if only more soldiers could be like the Tenente and just walk away from all the boredom, even though only boredom awaits in normal life, things could be better.

To me the most striking impression of all, in a work filled with unforgettable impressions, was the sheer acceptance exhibited by the narrator: The hustle of the war, his own life, and the entire world even seems to move past the stoic Tenente who is left a mere spectator, but who never seems to question the events that unfold.

This captures the spirit of the war and also of the times.

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Posted by on March 31, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Dangerous Ideas; Necessary Ideas: The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914

The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914 by Philipp Blom

My Rating★★★★☆

Dangerous Ideas; Necessary Ideas

The Vertigo Years traces the initial eruptions of some of the most explosive ideas and social phenomenons of the century that bore the brunt of the first mad rush of modernity —  from socialism and fascism, to nuclear physics and the theory of relativity; from conceptual art and consumer society, to mass media and democratization; to feminism and psychoanalysis. The many issues and the intellectual interplay is explored in great detail and gives an overall impression of what seems in retrospect like backing for the war that followed, by every section of the social classes, from the intellectual elite, to the middle classes to the oppressed classes. We may even be tempted to see the war itself as a subconscious eruption of such strong tendencies that pervaded a restless continent and thus the world.

Granted it was weird times, but the ping-pong of retrospectively attributing the war to all these ideas and tendencies, and all these back to the war is not valid. The turn of the century was marked by many leaps of understanding, and also by a blind faith in science and progress, and a strong tendency to believe simplistic arguments. The war itself was a product of this blind faith in technological advance and an inability to think through the various connected effects of each advance and its application in any field (including the military). A mad scramble for catch-all theories.

Most of the wildest surmises of the era seems laughable at best or dangerous at worst to us now, especially the term ‘Belle Époque’ and the many excesses of fields such as Criminology, Phrenology, etc. But what we need to understand is that without such wild forays and over-confident theories, science would not have progressed at such a rate. There is now an unfortunate tendency to look back at these theories and mock them with a typical – “Look what THAT led to!”

Isn’t it deplorable that even a theory like Darwinism still has to buckle occasionally under the weight of its origins and the distortions visited upon it back then? Isn’t it at least sad that the intellectual legacy of philosophers like Nietzsche is perpetually tainted by the twisting it was subjected to by over-zealous followers? Isn’t the same the case even with Marxism? Why do they all have to be judged with hindsight-bias? It is our loss that these ideas are tainted, and even more so when we know so well that there is enough wheat among the supposed chaff to make them well worth passionate study and engagement.

This book allows us to see those ideas, including the ones that seem virulent and culpable to us today, in a new light — in the light of exploration and intellectual abandonment. As necessary precursors to both the good and the bad, hard to distinguish or separate at the moment of conception.

This is to be achieved by seeing the whole period in a new light, far way from the shadow cast upon it by later events.

That is when we can understand and appreciate the many ideas and false starts and sputtering that were necessary to the march of progress. That is also when we can learn to liberate the ideas from the weight of history and set them free again, to rejuvenate our own times.


The Thought Experiment

Blom is well aware that it is impossible to see this momentous period without the perspective of the war that followed. True. And the period deserves to be seen without that shadow, but this book proves that it is impossible to read without that shadow and more importantly, the author must have realized that it is impossible to write without it either, especially when most of the readers who turn to the book will do so to understand the war and its lead up better.

That is why Blom asks us to indulge in a thought experiment that should be sustained throughout the reading of this book — Blom invites us to look at the era without the benefit of our retrospective blinkers. He asks us to imagine that written history ended on 1914, so that this complicated period is not overshadowed by the events that followed. This is very hard to do and the moment we loose sight of this and slip back into our impatience to ‘understand’ the war, much of the book will seem pointless to the reader. If the reader wishes to understand the period, he/she needs to persist in this little suspension of belief.

After all, no period deserves to be treated merely as a lead-up to some historic event, but needs to be approached on its own terms to discover the true complexity of the people and ideas which inhabited and shaped it.

A lot more was going on than just the war.

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Posted by on March 1, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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