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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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Wishing Yourself A Good Night

Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of SleepDreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall

My Rating★★★☆☆

Wishing Yourself A Good Night

What do you do when you really don’t have much to tell on a subject, especially when you care a lot about it? You tell anecdotes and try to keep it interesting. Most neuroscience books these days tend to be packed with anecdotes that are weird, but on which there is no scientific consensus. The reader is left to his/her own devices on what to make of all the stories. This book is not much different. It starts with an admission that we know next to nothing about sleep – the activity that occupies 1/3rd of our lives.

The author sets off an a quest to discover more about his own sleep conditions and finds that he has fallen into a strange rabbit hole that exists just on the other side the pillow, and which most of are never aware of.

Once I started really thinking about sleep for the first time, the questions came in waves. Do men sleep differently than women? Why do we dream? Why is getting children to fall asleep one of the hardest parts of becoming a new parent, and is it this hard for everyone around the world? How come some people snore and others don’t? And what makes my body start sleepwalking, and why can’t I tell it to stop? Asking friends and family about sleep elicited a long string of “I don’t knows,” followed by looks of consternation, like the expressions you see on students who don’t know the answers to a pop quiz. Sleep, the universal element of our lives, was the great unknown. And frankly, that makes no sense.

A few take aways:

1. The Need for sleep:

Most of us will spend a full third of our lives asleep, and yet we don’t have the faintest idea of what it does for our bodies and our brains. Research labs offer surprisingly few answers. Sleep is one of the dirty little secrets of science. We don’t know about sleep, and the book opens with the most obvious question of all—why we, and every other animal, need to sleep in the first place.

Here we hear many horror stories of sleep-deprivation: Within the first twenty-four hours of sleep deprivation, the blood pressure starts to increase. Not long afterward, the metabolism levels go haywire, giving a person an uncontrollable craving for carbohydrates. The body temperature drops and the immune system gets weaker. If this goes on for too long, there is a good chance that the mind will turn against itself, making a person experience visions and hear phantom sounds akin to a bad acid trip. At the same time, the ability to make simple decisions or recall obvious facts drops off severely. It is bound to end in severe consequences – including death. It is a bizarre downward spiral that is all the more peculiar because it can be stopped completely, and all of its effects will vanish, simply by sleeping for a couple of hours.

2. The Amount of sleep:

Humans need roughly one hour of sleep for every two hours they are awake, and the body innately knows when this ratio becomes out of whack. Each hour of missed sleep one night will result in deeper sleep the next, until the body’s sleep debt is wiped clean.

3. The Stages of Sleep:

Researchers now say that sleep is made up of five distinct stages that the body cycles through over roughly ninety-minute periods. The first is so light that if you wake up from it, you might not realize that you have been sleeping. The second is marked by the appearance of sleep-specific brain waves that last only a few seconds at a time. If you reach this point in the cycle, you will know you have been sleeping when you wake up. This stage marks the last stop before your brain takes a long ride away from consciousness. Stages three and four are considered deep sleep. In three, the brain sends out long, rhythmic bursts called delta waves. Stage four is known as slow-wave sleep for the speed of its accompanying brain waves. The deepest form of sleep, this is the farthest that your brain travels from conscious thought. If you are woken up while in stage four, you will be disoriented, unable to answer basic questions, and want nothing more than to go back to sleep, a condition that researchers call sleep drunkenness. The final stage is REM sleep, so named because of the rapid movements of your eyes dancing against your eyelids. In this type of sleep, the brain is as active as it is when it is awake. This is when most dreams occur.

4. The Ideal Pattern of Sleep (that you are not following):

Natural light is the way to go. Artificial light messes up your sleep patterns and the body pays for it in the long run. Post-Edison world has come close to banishing the night, but our bodies still live in a world where sun is the only source of light, and have all sorts of troubles processing artificial light induced sleep patters. More and more health problems are being tied to unnatural sleep patterns and Light Pollution.

Example: Electric light at night disrupts your circadian clock, the name given to the natural rhythms that the human body developed over time. When you see enough bright light at night, your brain interprets this as sunlight because it doesn’t know any better. The lux scale, a measure of the brightness of light, illustrates this point. One lux is equal to the light from a candle ten feet away. A standard 100-watt lightbulb shines at 190 lux, while the lighting in an average office building is 300 lux. The body’s clock can be reset by any lights stronger than 180 lux, meaning that the hours you spend in your office directly impact your body’s ability to fall asleep later. That’s because your body reacts to bright light the same way it does to sunshine, sending out signals to try to keep itself awake and delay the nightly maintenance of cleanup and rebuilding of cells that it does while you are asleep. Too much artificial light can stop the body from releasing melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep.

Poor sleep is just one symptom of an unwound body clock. Circadian rhythms are thought to control as many as 15 percent of our genes. When those genes don’t function as they should because of the by-products of artificial light, the effects are a rogue’s gallery of health disorders. Studies have linked depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and even cancer to overexposure to light at night. Researchers know this, in part, from studying nurses who have spent years working the graveyard shift. One study of 120,000 nurses found that those who worked night shifts were the most likely to develop breast cancer. Another found that nurses who worked at least three night shifts a month for fifteen years had a 35 percent greater chance of developing colon cancer. The increased disease rates could not be explained as a by-product of working in a hospital.

In one of the most intriguing studies, researchers in Israel used satellite photos to chart the level of electric light at night in 147 communities. Then, they placed the satellite photos over maps that showed the distribution of breast cancer cases. Even after controlling for population density, affluence, and other factors that can influence health, there was a significant correlation between exposure to artificial light at night and the number of women who developed the disease. If a woman lived in a place where it was bright enough outside to read a book at midnight, she had a 73 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer than a peer who lived in a neighborhood that remained dark after the sun went down. Researchers think that the increased risk is a result of lower levels of melatonin, which may affect the body’s production of estrogen.

There could be more discoveries on the horizon that show detrimental health effects caused by artificial light. Researchers are interested in how lights have made us less connected to the changing of the seasons. “We’ve deseasonalized ourselves,” Wehr, the sleep researcher, said. “We are living in an experiment that is finding out what happens if you expose humans to constant summer day lengths.”

5. What Should Be Your Sleep Schedule?

In the Canterbury Tales, one of the characters in “The Squire’s Tale” wakes up in the early morning following her “first sleep” and then goes back to bed. A fifteenth-century medical book, meanwhile, advised readers to spend the “first sleep” on the right side and after that to lie on their left. And a scholar in England wrote that the time between the “first sleep” and the “second sleep” was the best time for serious study. Sleep, it seems, wasn’t always the one long block that we consider it today.

This natural mode of sleep sounds weird to the post-Edison world of artificial lights and 6 hour sleep cycles. But it was a fact of life that was once as common as eating breakfast.

For most of human history, every night, people fell asleep not long after the sun went down and stayed that way until sometime after midnight. This was the “first sleep” that kept popping up in the old tales. Once a person woke up, he or she would stay that way for an hour or so before going back to sleep until morning—the so-called second sleep. The time between the two bouts of sleep was a natural and expected part of the night and, depending on your needs, was spent praying, reading, contemplating your dreams, urinating, or having sex. The last one was perhaps the most popular.

Experiments confirm this tendency: Thomas Wehr, who worked for the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, was struck by the idea that the ubiquitous artificial light we see every day could have some unknown effect on our sleep habits. On a whim, he deprived subjects of artificial light for up to fourteen hours a day in hopes of re-creating the lighting conditions common to early humans. Without lightbulbs, televisions, or street lamps, the subjects in his study initially did little more at night than sleep. They spent the first few weeks of the experiment like kids in a candy store, making up for all of the lost sleep that had accumulated from staying out late at night or showing up at work early in the morning. After a few weeks, the subjects were better rested than perhaps at any other time in their lives.

That was when the experiment took a strange turn. Soon, the subjects began to stir a little after midnight, lie awake in bed for an hour or so, and then fall back asleep again. It was the same sort of segmented sleep that Ekirch found in the historical records. While sequestered from artificial light, subjects were shedding the sleep habits they had formed over a lifetime. It was as if their bodies were exercising a muscle they never knew they had. The experiment revealed the innate wiring in the brain, unearthed only after the body was sheltered from modern life. Not long after Wehr published a paper about the study, Ekirch contacted him and revealed his own research findings.

Numerous other studies have shown that splitting sleep into two roughly equal halves is something that our bodies will do if we give them a chance. In places of the world where there isn’t artificial light—and all the things that go with it, like computers, movies, and bad reality TV shows—people still sleep this way. In the mid-1960s, anthropologists studying the Tiv culture in central Nigeria found that group members not only practiced segmented sleep, but also used roughly the same terms of first sleep and second sleep.

6. Sleep & Performance

The places where most of the cutting edge research happens and great places to understand the importance of sleep is the Military and Sports fields – areas where human excellence, endurance and performance is pushed to the limits. It stands to reason that these fields notice the effects of sleep problems first. Many sports teams now take great trouble to make sure Light is adjusted to natural cycles, athletes get the full quota of sleep, etc. It s only a matter of time before rest of popular culture catches on – just like many health ides, diets, exercises etc.

7. Sleep Timings Change with Age:

The three basic stages of adulthood—teenage, middle age, old age—have drastically different sleep structures. Teenagers going through puberty find it impossible to fall asleep early and would naturally sleep past ten in the morning if given the choice. Their grandparents often fall asleep early in the night, but then find that they can’t stay that way for more than three or four hours at a time. Middle-aged adults typically fall between the middle of these two extremes, content to fall asleep early when circumstances allow it, yet able to pull an all-nighter when a work project calls for it. These overlapping shifts could be a way to ensure that someone in the family is always awake and keeping watch, or at least close to it. In this ancient system, it makes sense that older adults who are unable to move as fast as the rest of the family are naturally jumpy, never staying in deep sleep for long, simply because they were the most vulnerable to the unknown.

The other stage – babyhood is a time with no sleep structure at all. They sleep and wake up independent of the light/circadian rhythms. To the eternal consternation of all parents!

So human society is biologically designed to live in different time zones?!

Biology’s cruel joke goes something like this: As a teenage body goes through puberty, its circadian rhythm essentially shifts three hours backward. Suddenly, going to bed at nine or ten o’clock at night isn’t just a drag, but close to a biological impossibility. Studies of teenagers around the globe have found that adolescent brains do not start releasing melatonin until around eleven o’clock at night and keep pumping out the hormone well past sunrise. Adults, meanwhile, have little-to-no melatonin in their bodies when they wake up. With all that melatonin surging through their bloodstream, teenagers who are forced to be awake before eight in the morning are often barely alert and want nothing more than to give in to their body’s demands and fall back asleep. Because of the shift in their circadian rhythm, asking a teenager to perform well in a classroom during the early morning is like asking him or her to fly across the country and instantly adjust to the new time zone—and then do the same thing every night, for four years. If professional football players had to do that, they would be lucky to win one game.

8. What Sort of Bed Should You Choose?

The biggest question—whether a bed should be hard or soft—has a long and confusing history. In 2008, the medical journal Spine seemed to settle the question of firmness. It found that there was little difference in back pain between those who slept on hard mattresses and those who slept on softer ones. How hard a person likes his or her bed is a personal preference and nothing more.

In fact, the bed that you find the most comfortable will most likely be the one that you are already sleeping on.

9. Forget The Bed – Sleep Hygiene Is What You Need

While a comfortable mattress may have little impact when it comes to sleep quality, there are several other aspects of the bedroom that do. Taken together, they form what specialists call sleep hygiene. Most are common sense.

– No coffee before bed / in the evening

Nor is drinking alcohol before bedtime a smart move. Alcohol may help speed the onset of sleep, but it begins to take its toll during the second half of the night. As the body breaks down the liquid, the alcohol in the bloodstream often leads to an increase in the number of times a person briefly wakes up. This continues until the blood alcohol level returns to zero, thereby preventing the body from getting a full, deep, restorative sleep.

Developing a few habits with the circadian rhythm in mind will most likely make sleep easier. Adequate exposure to natural light, for instance, will help keep the body’s clock in sync with the day-night cycle and prime the brain to increase the level of melatonin in the bloodstream, which will then bring on sleepiness around ten o’clock each night.

By the same token, bright lights—including the blue-and-white light that comes from a computer monitor or a television screen—can deceive the brain, which registers it as daylight. Lying in bed watching a movie on an iPad may be relaxing, but the constant bright light from the screen can make it more difficult for some people to fall asleep afterward.

– Walk around your house and switch off all bright lights half an hour before you sleep, including the TV, the iPad and the laptop.

Recent studies have shown that body temperature also plays an outsized role in getting decent sleep. Takes steps to have a comfortable temperature: Take a cold shower, etc.

– Even a small increase in the amount of exercise a person gets leads to measurable improvements in the time that it takes to fall asleep and stay that way. This is particularly true for older adults.

10. The Effort Is Worth Your Time

But, though its effects were subtle, devoting extra time and attention to this most basic of human needs impacted nearly every minute of my day. Because I was improving my sleep, I was improving my life. And all it took was treating sleep with the same respect that I already gave other aspects of my health. Just as I wouldn’t eat a plate of chili-cheese fries every day and expect to continue to fit into my pants, I structured my life around the idea that I couldn’t get only a few hours of sleep and expect to function properly. If there was one thing that I took away from my talks with experts more than any other, it is that getting a good night’s sleep takes work.

And that work is worth it. Health, sex, relationships, creativity, memories—all of these things that make us who we are depend on the hours we spend each night with our heads on the pillow. By ignoring something that every animal requires, we are left turning to pills that we may not need, experiencing health problems that could be tamed, and pushing our children into sleep-deprived lives that make the already tough years of adolescence more difficult. And yet sleep continues to be forgotten, overlooked, and postponed. Any step—whether it comes in the form of exercise, therapy, or simply reading a book like this one—that helps us to realize the importance of sleep inevitably pushes us toward a better, stronger, and more creative life.

Sleep, in short, makes us the people we want to be. All you have to do is close your eyes.

In addition to all the sleep advice, the best part of the book was the full-fledged dissing of poor Freud: Far from being full of hidden symbols, most dreams were remarkably straightforward and predictable. Dream plots were consistent enough that, just by knowing the cast of characters in a dream, scientists could forecast what would happen with surprising accuracy. – “None of Freud’s claims are true by any of our standards today,” Domhoff said, dipping his spoon into his yogurt. “If you look at dreams—if you really look at them like we have—then you see that it’s all there, out in the open. You don’t need any of these symbols.” He went on. “Freudians got all caught up in the idea that there were hidden meanings to our dreams. But their interpretations only worked because we share a system of figurative language and metaphor.”

The Short Summary

Too Lengthy for your tastes? Would reading such a big review eat into your sleep quota for today? Here is a Quick Summary:

1. Sleep for eight hours. Sleep is the natural repair mechanism of the body. If we mess with it, we are bound to have repair related diseases – such as cancer.
2. Follow the natural cycle and your circadian Rhythms. Dont live in perpetual jet lag conditions.
3. Sleep by around 8-9 and wake up at around 12, go back to sleep by 1 and wake by around 4-5 (add 2 hours if possible on either side)
– if you are older, you will need to sleep earlier to be able to fill your quota. it will be almost impossible to sleep late into the day as you age.
4. Avoid artificial lights while sleeping, make sure you are exposed to natural light
5. Relax yourself before sleep, make sure you get some exercise every day.
6. Don’t indulge in dangerous/delicate activities when sleep deprived. Sleep well for high performance.
7. Sleep properly to be more healthy in general – it affects all sorts of things in your body.
8. Don’t impose your sleep patterns on the rest of your family, esp when they are of another age. Dont impose adult sleep patters on kids.
9. Make sure your naps are always 90 minutes or longer. Take naps before important activities, or when stressed.

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Posted by on September 18, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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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.

description

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?

description

“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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Paradharmo Bhayaavahah: Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Self-RelianceSelf-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson

My Rating★★★★☆

Shreyaan swadharmo vigunah paradharmaat swanushthitaat; 
Swadharme nidhanam shreyah paradharmo bhayaavahah. 
~ The Bhagavad-Gita, 3.35 (Chapter 3, Verse 35)

[Better is one’s own Dharma, though devoid of merit, than the Dharma of another well discharged. Better is even death in one’s own Dharma; to attempt the Dharma of another is fraught with danger.]

I felt that Self-Reliance is a book length homage to this verse. Emerson, while talking loftily of originality seems to have not the slightest compunction in drawing heavily from oriental philosophies to achieve the grandeur that is reflected in his thoughts and writings. Of course Emerson was no stranger to the beautiful verses of Gita nor to the Upanishads. Emerson and Thoreau, both, were greatly drawn by the philosophy of The Gita. As Thoreau says, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial.” Emerson has also been vocal in his praise – “The Bhagavad-Gita is an empire of thought and in its philosophical teachings Krishna has all the attributes of the full-fledged monotheistic deity and at the same time the attributes of the Upanisadic absolute.”

I just wish that the book itself had a reference to The Gita and did not depend on my memory to make the connections. Self-Reliance is a great and inspirational work, but would have been the better for quoting its own inspirations.

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Posted by on January 24, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Nabokov’s Lolita: An Appreciation

LolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov

My Rating★★★★★

Qualifier:

Here is the review I had planned in my earlier rambling. I had half-hoped that I would brood over it, and in due time, some blazingly original understanding of the book would shine through in a review (as it usually does!). Now enough time has passed and I have even given the book a second go-over. I am still lost. So here, for your reading pleasure, is the second-hand review, the old mish-mash of familiar thoughts, the dusty talk about beauty and about confused morality and vague hints at some hidden depth. It is just table-talk as far as Lolita is concerned. Do you really want to read it? Why don’t you read a more intelligent counter-analysis here? I warned you —

Review:

Lolita should probably be read with a french dictionary in one hand and a glass of wine on the table side and even that doesn’t guarantee that you will understand the full beauty of the prose.

Only the beauty of the language distracts one enough to get through the head-over-heals atrocities that litter the pages. At times I felt strongly that it is more of a study in beauty and aesthetics than is it about morality or on examining the pathos of society – as we want every literary book to be.

The fact that it doubles as a weird post-apocalyptic parent-daughter road-trip, where they cruise on against the dark landscape of a morally devastated world was for me only a backdrop to the exquisite ode to beauty that the book was. But, the road-trip nevertheless occupies a central position in the narrative. The Appalachian roads are the witness to the worst of the perversions – the dark moral descent. And then the tide reverses and the same roads are traversed again in a mad descent of the intellect into madness. But somehow, in that second journey Humbert gains a surer knowledge of what the relationship between beauty and innocence is and about what appreciation should be tolerated and what terminated.

The most disturbing factor about the whole reading experience was the dawning sense that the poor Lolita whom you are to pity is not so innocent after all. She represents the modern youth – who knows all the worst secrets of earth and indulges them without any sense of the absurd or evil. The innocence lost is regained due to a lack of angst at what an earlier generation considered morally base. What is not acceptable in this post-apocalyptic moral world? Apparently nothing, the worst transgressions are treated as matter of fact and the two interlopers are never discovered and even murder is committed in the midst of mad jocularity. It’s a comedy roiling in depravity, masquerading as a confession. It is as darkly-funny as ‘darkly-funny’ can get. Post-modernism marries Absurdist literature in Nabokov’s Lolita.

The fabricated foreword too gives tantalizing clues on how to decipher the novel and the protagonist – but as you finish the novel you realize that the foreword was an example of how someone who just doesn’t “get it” would view the novel. It is a negative signpost to guide you where not to go. The afterword is very factual and gives a better understanding of the book.

As the B&N site says, Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written… that is, ecstatically. The novel is indeed too perfectly crafted, you want to scream at it in disgust and you want to coo at it in adoration. It is like one of those abhorrent but so-perfect marble statues – it is beautiful enough to be feared but your eyes can never look away once fixed on its perfect form. As a fellow goodreader has said, you may not enjoy reading this book but you might enjoy having read it. Reading it is worth the time, just to marvel at what our mundane, every-day language can become in the hands of a true artist. Forget what it describes, go with the music, dance a little.

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Posted by on January 13, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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A Skimmable Note on Slow Reading

Slow ReadingSlow Reading by John Miedema

My Rating★★★☆☆

It is a pity that for a book that celebrates books that deserve, no demand the investment of time and all our mental and emotional faculties, it is itself barely so.

Despite its bite-sized length and lack of depth, it is still important. I would recommend potential readers to Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business if you want a deeper understanding of the issues that Miedema touches on in this book.

By the way, the book is not so much about slowing down in how much you read than in reading in a more engaged way. It is against the redefinition of reading that is brought forth by the change in the mediums of reading and in the nature of the readings available as a result. It is not against readers who read a lot because they find tv boring and find intellectual stimulation more arresting. So ‘right back at you!’ to all of my friends who suggested this book to me in all sweet irony. Thanks too, of course!

For a more comprehensive review, see Richard’s review.

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Posted by on August 27, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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The Brothers Karamazov: On Romancing The Devil

The Brothers KaramazovThe Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

My Rating★★★★★

On Romancing The Devil

Warning: This review might contain spoilers even outside the hidden ‘spoiler alert’ regions. I honestly am not capable of discriminating.

The book is not about the murder or about who did it, those things were very apparent before half the book was completed, the narrator taking special pains to spoil all suspense for his readers at the very beginning (harkening back to the days of greek drama and Euripides – according to whom, the effect of a story, even a whodunnit, was not in epic suspense about what was going to happen next, but in those great scenes of lyrical rhetorics in which the passion and dialectic of the protagonists reached heights of eloquence. Everything was to portend pathos, not action, which was always there only as a container for the pathos, to give it form). This was probably done so that the typical clue-seeking aspects of a mystery does not detract his reader from addressing the real, the painful questions littered all across his treatise, almost with indecent abandon. *spoiler* After all, we were shown by Dostoevsky varying degrees of foreshadowings of every event that eventually became turning points in the plot – starting with the numerous leading comments of the narrator including the one in the opening paragraph, Zosima’s prediction of suffering for and apology to Dimitri and Smerdyakov’s not so subtle clues to Ivan among many others. And do not forget that Dostoyevsky even gave us the alternate route that Mitya could have taken in the Zosima narrative – the parallels in that story are too numerous to list out here. *spoiler ends*[After all, we were shown by Dostoevsky varying degrees of foreshadowings of every event that eventually became turning points in the plot – starting with the numerous leading comments of the narrator including the one in the opening paragraph, Zosima’s prediction of suffering for and apology to Dimitri and Smerdyakov’s not so subtle clues to Ivan among many others. And do not forget that Dostoyevsky even gave us the alternate route that Mitya could have taken in the Zossima narrative – the parallels i that story are too numerous to list out here. (hide spoiler)]

No, this story is not about the murder or about the murderer or about his motivations or about the suspense for his final fate. The story is about the reaction – it was all about the jury. Many theories abound about how the Karamazov family represents Russia/humanity/all characters but the reality is that they represent individualities; while it is that terrible faceless jury, always adressed to and never addressed by, that represents humanity. The job of the country, the society, of the whole human race is to judge, to determine the fate of individuals based on the stories that they construct, literally out of thin air, out of the small pieces of a life that they can only ever observe. The best character sketches, fictional or otherwise can only ever be the minutest portion of a real character – but from that tiniest of slivers we build this ambiguous thing called ‘character’, as if such a thing can possibly exist for a creature as fickle-minded and forgetful of himself as man. Character of a man is the greatest myth, propagated best by novelists, as no story can proceed without a ‘constant’ man who behave with some level of predictability or with predictable unpredictability, but real life is the result of adding a minimum of three more ‘unpredictable’ as adjectives to that earlier description, to come close to describing even the simplest and most boring idiot alive. But yet we construct stories, to understand, to predict, to know how to behave, we even make up stories about ourselves so that we may have an illusion of control over who we are – so that we do not melt into the amorphous protean mass that is the rest of humanity – my story separates me from all of them. I construct, therefore I am.

These are the romances that Dostoevsky wields his best work against and the trial is a trial of reason, of reality pitted against the overwhelming circumstantial evidence in favor of romance, of the myth of character, of individuality, of cause and effect, of there being anything predictable when such a wild variable as a human mind is part of the equation, how can such an equation be anything but ‘indeterminate’ (to borrow Dostoevsky’s own expression)?

That was the grand trial, the inquisition of reason. But how can the defense stand up in favor of reality without explaining to the jury (to humanity) why they see things not as they are, that they have made up a story that is perfect but is never real as no story can ever be – as no cause can really cause a definite effect when human beings are involved? You have to tell a story to convince the jury. You have to tell a story to defend the fact that stories do not exist. A story now, about stories. Or multiple stories to show how all stories are false if only one can be allowed to be true. The only other option is that all are true, simultaneously. By proving which you include your own story in that ‘self-consuming’ super-set and doom your own argument. There is the irresolvable conflict of the trial, of the story, of the novel, of life. You cannot discredit the myth of the story without the help of a story as the jury that judges cannot understand, cannot comprehend any reality outside of a story, human beings cannot think outside their romances. They will continue to exist as prisoners to their own stories. That is why it is a comedy and not a tragedy, as no one died and no one killed and it remains akin to a sphinx setting us a riddle which he cannot solve himself. But, judgment had to be passed as the story was told. One story among many.

——–

An expanded review might follow and will try to address some of the big themes of the book, enumerated below:

1) On Fatherhood – The second big theme of the book. Possibly the real theme, the above only being my own story…

2) On Crime & the Efficacy of Punishment – On how men will always rise to be worthy of their punishment/mercy; On suffering and salvation and on how no judgement can be stronger, more effective or more damning/redemptive than moral self-judgement; On how would Ivan’s ecclesiastical courts eventually would have behaved – would they have behaved as predicted by him in his prose poem and let christ go, unlike the real court? So, in the end his alternate vision of Satan’s court is what really shown by the current judicial apparitions? But in the fable who was it that really forgave the inquisitor or the inquisitee? And in the overall story too, who forgives whom in the end? Christ or Humanity, Satan or Church, Dimitri or Russia?

3) On Collateral Damage – inflicted by the main story on side stories, on how the small side stories are over shadowed, no murdered by the main one and without any risk of conviction.

4) On the Institution of Religion– On morality and the question of the necessity of religion; On the basis for faith; On the implications of faith/lack of faith to the story one tells about oneself; On how Philip Pullman took the easy way out by expanding Dostoevsky’s story for his widely acclaimed novel; On the enormous burden of free will; On the dependence of men on the security of miracles that is the source of all hell and of all action.

5) On the Characters – On how Dostoevsky took the cream of his best-conceived characters from the universe of his creation, from across all his best works to populate his magnum opus, his story about stories, to trace out their path with the ultimate illusion of realism, with the ultimate ambition and to show/realize how it should always, always fall apart; On how he reflected the whole universe in a small lake and created a novel about all novels, disproving and affirming them simultaneously, murdering its own parents in its own fulfillment; On how they might have their Hamlets, but we have our Karamazov’s.

6) On Hope & Redemption – On how ultimately Zosima’s world view trumps the cynical aspects that dominated the book; On how Zosima predicted it all at the very beginning and apologized to Dimitri on behalf of all mankind – ‘taking everyone’s sin upon himself”, thus creating an inverted reflection of the christ figure, its image playing on both Dimitri and on Zosima for that split second and then passing on to Alyosha until finally projected back to Dimitri, in the ultimate paradox, where he becomes at last a christ figure and a buddha figure, exemplifying self-knowledge and enlightenment through true suffering; On how even the Karamazov name can be inspiring and be cause for cheers even though it represents the worst (best?) of humanity; On The Sermon at the Stone.

7) On Nihilism – On the absurdity of life and trying to explain it. But oh wait, this is what I talked of in paragraph length already.

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Ps. By the way, when you read this, keep your ears tuned towards the end – for somewhere in the distance you might hear the laugh of the Grand Inquisitor echoing faintly.

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Posted by on July 28, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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