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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)

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


The Republic: An Apology

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

~ Alfred North Whitehead

The Famous Republic

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

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

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

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

The Offensive Republic

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

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

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

The Misunderstood Republic

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

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

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

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

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The Personal Constitution: A Constitution of the Perfect Life

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

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

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

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

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

Philosopher, Be Thyself

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

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

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


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

OR


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

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

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

 

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Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the HumanitiesNot for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum

My Rating★★★☆☆


Indian parents take pride in a child who gains admission to the Institutes of Technology and Management; they are ashamed of a child who studies literature, or philosophy, or who wants to paint or dance or sing.

Nussbaum wants to change this situation with this manifesto, with this call to action. With the very poignantly titled Not for Profit, Nussbaum alerts us to a “silent crisis” in which nations “discard skills” as they “thirst for national profit.”: a world-wide crisis in education. She focuses on two major educational systems to illustrate this: one in the grips of the crisis and in its death-row. The other carelessly hurtling towards it, undoing much of the good done before (and worse, the USA is a leader in most fields, and rest of the world may well follow where it leads).

What is this developing crisis? Nussbaum laments that the humanities and the arts are being cut away, in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world. Seen by policy-makers, parents and students as nothing but useless frills, and at a time when nations must cut away all useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market, they are rapidly losing their place in curricula, and also in the minds and hearts of parents and children.

This is most prevalent and inevitable in the placement-based institutions, especially the IITs and the IIMs and the newspapers that hawk their successes, that measure their success purely on the drama of placements and on the excess of the pay-packages. This sort of a higher education orientation also changes the early school cultures, with parents having no patience for allegedly superfluous skills, and intent on getting their children filled with testable skills that seem likely to produce financial success by getting into the IITs and the IIMs.

Nussbaum says that in these IITs and IIMs, instructors are most disturbed by their students’ deficient humanities preparation. It might be heartening that it is precisely in these institutions, at the heart of India’s profit-oriented technology culture, that instructors have felt the need to introduce liberal arts courses, partly to counter the narrowness of their students.

But it is not really so. Even as professors struggle to introduce such courses, as students at IIM, we have an all-encompassing word for anything that comes anywhere close to the humanities: “GLOBE”, and boy don’t we love using it. This throughly derogatory terms sums up the purely career-minded, profit-driven orientation of education in India’s elite institutions. I now feel a sense of complete despair at every laugh shared in the use of this expression. With the standards of success thus set, is it any wonder that the culture is seeping across the education spectrum?

After this dispiriting survey of Indian education, Nussbaum says that the situation is not as bad yet in the US due to an existing strong humanities culture in the higher institutions, but issues the below caveat:

We in the United States can study our own future in the government schools of India. Such will be our future if we continue down the road of “teaching to the test,” neglecting the activities that enliven children’s minds and make them see a connection between their school life and their daily life outside of school. We should be deeply alarmed that our own schools are rapidly, heedlessly, moving in the direction of the Indian norm, rather than the reverse.

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

 

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The State of The Nation by Fali S. Nariman

The State of The NationThe State of The Nation by Fali S. Nariman

My Rating★★★★★

This book was an Independence day gift to myself and it has turned out to be a good choice. In Nariman’s exploration and assessment of various issues based on constitutional tenets, the ‘state of the nation’ seems healthy only when these issues collide with the courts of law. Men seem good, reason seems triumphant and government officials and leaders seem to be the arbitrary children that they actually are, but all without feeling that this is cause for a tragic gloom – because the parent is around to discipline them. We need the courts to overreach, Nariman seems to be saying in all earnestness (with his characteristically profligate smattering of exclamation marks in the text).

It has to be admitted that there is a genuine (almost perverse) pleasure in seeing leaders who are consistently acknowledged to be the scourge of modern India being put in their place, being given a public reassessment of their sense of importance. This is what Nariman provides (drawing heavily on his 60 odd years of experience at the bar) through his numerous anecdotes and mini case-studies – this is also what the courts Vs government drama provides to the common man. It allows us to generate a healthy skepticism of the government and moves us away from the ‘mai-baap’ mentality. The highest courts play a vital role in this.

While the Govt might see this as an erosion of credibility, and resent this incursion and ‘overreach’ Nariman seems to say that this is exactly what the doctor (constitution) ordered in the first place: what a good governance really requires are institutions that have full cognizance of their own fragility and of their own failures.

Thus the majority of the book enumerates the state of the nation using the Constitution as a yardstick and seems to imply that as long as we have wise men in the courts acting as zealous watchdogs of the Constitution, democracy is safe and if not progress, at least regress is effectively checked.

So while saying in not as many words that the state of the nation is bad but could have been much worse if not for the courts, Nariman has the conscientiousness to also examine his beloved judiciary itself. And to his credit, he does a remarkable objective and unbiased take on it. The last chapter is almost ominous, and almost certainly deliberately exaggerated. The spirit of the chapter is that if the nation, Constitution and democracy is being guarded by the judiciary, we need to ask every now and then the clichéd question: ‘who will watch the watchmen’. And we need to be very very aware of the real and present dangers.

But in the end, I have not let the brooding last chapter detract from the overriding confidence that the book asks of me towards the judiciary and by proxy to the nation and its ‘state’. Every section in this book begins with one of the political cartoons of the legendary ‘common man’ (from the series of iconic sketches by Laxman who used to express the ‘state of the nation’ more powerfully than what many serious journos ever managed – a role that the amul ads now seem to be valiantly trying to fill) that illustrates poignantly some of the issues that Nariman wants to address in it. The last chapter did not have one, presumably because he could not find one. In the end, that lack of a cartoon was the most telling thing for me.

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Posted by on August 16, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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A Companion to Ethics by Peter Singer

A Companion to EthicsA Companion to Ethics by Peter Singer

My Rating★★★★☆

Singer takes a different approach with this book and instead of culling from existing literature, he calls for essays and the result is an eclectic mix of essays that exhibit a wide range of contemporary’s takes on some of the classic and current problems that philosophers wrestle with or theorize about. It consists of some fifty original essays. These essays deal with the origins of ethics, with the great ethical traditions, with theories about how we ought to live, with arguments about specific ethical issues, and with the nature of ethics itself.

As Singer puts it, a quick summary might go like this: in the first part, we see how little we know about the origins of ethics, how ethics in small-scale societies takes forms very different from those it takes in our own, and how the most ancient ethical writings already reflect a variety of views about how life is to be lived. Then the great ethical traditions are put on display; and we find divergence of opinion not only between the different traditions, but within each tradition itself. The history of Western philosophical ethics shows how, from the earliest Greek thinkers to the present day, old philosophical positions have resurfaced at intervals, and old battles have had to be fought out all over again in more modern terms. When, in Part IV, the volume moves from the past to the present, we are presented with many theories of how we ought to live, and about the nature of ethics, all plausible, sometimes disagreeing with other approaches.

The many voices makes this a valuable collection in that the method provides a level of over-all detachment that a single author tackling multiple philosophies might find hard to achieve. Here each of the authors are (presumably) scholars who wanted to make a distinct point and Singer is okay with accepting that the book might not have any coherence beyond being a companion to the many schools; but the reader also develops a sense of convergence of ideas as the book moves from the past to the present and from questions to possible solutions. What is striking at this point is the unexpected extent to which writers who had started from quite different places all seemed to be heading in the same direction.

That is the strength of the book. It lays out the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle but leaves it to the reader to divine if there is an overarching outline connecting them. And a book on philosophy should always endeavor to let that thrill be the reader’s.

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Posted by on August 16, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy

 

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The Wizard of Oz as An Economic Parable: A Short Introduction

The Wonderful Wizard of OzThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

My Rating★★★★★

The Wizard of Oz as An Economic Parable: A Short Introduction

This might be common knowledge or it might not be. Some economics textbook claim this is a wonderfully esoteric nugget: The story of Oz was an economic parable. Take that, all you who said economics can’t be fun.

Redistributions of wealth caused by unexpected changes in the price level are often a source of political turmoil. From 1880 to 1896 the price level in the United States fell 23 percent. This deflation was good for Haves (creditors – primarily the bankers of the Northeast), but it was bad for Have-Nots (debtors – primarily the farmers of the South and West). The deflation was blamed almost exclusively on the now notorious Gold Standard and a proposed move towards Silver was instead the craved for alternative.

The Silver issue dominated the presidential election of 1896. William McKinley, the Republican nominee, campaigned on a platform of preserving the gold standard.

William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee, ranged boldly against Gold and for Silver. In a famous speech, Bryan proclaimed, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.’’

Not surprisingly, McKinley was the candidate of the conservative eastern establishment, whereas Bryan was the candidate of the southern and western populists.

Then came The Wizard of Oz.

The midwestern journalist, L. Frank Baum tells the story of Dorothy, a girl lost in a strange land far from her home in Kansas. Dorothy (representing traditional American values) makes three friends: a scarecrow (the farmer), a tin woodman (the industrial worker), and a lion whose roar exceeds his might (William Jennings Bryan). Together, the four of them make their way along a perilous yellow brick road (the gold standard), hoping to find the Wizard who will help Dorothy return home.

Eventually they arrive in Oz (Washington), where everyone sees the world through green glasses (money). The Wizard (William McKinley) tries to be all things to all people but turns out to be a fraud.

Dorothy’s problem is solved only when she learns about the magical power of her (otherwise ordinary) silver slippers. (Unfortunately the movie forgot the parable and omitted the silver slippers – thus depriving the majority of the audience of the real delight in the victory!)

The Republicans (The Wizard) won the election of 1896, and the United States stayed on a gold standard, but the Free Silver advocates got the inflation that they wanted after gold was discovered in Alaska, Australia, and South Africa. Even later, Gold was abandoned altogether and the fraudster wizards was never heard from again. Dorothy and Baum had the last laugh over the unwanted magical oppression of the Yellow Brick Road and the green-tinted world. Well, at least from the road.

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Posted by on August 14, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník

Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century

Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník

My Rating★★★★★

It is hard to put a finger on what this book tries to do but it does something important. It narrates history in a detached way without giving any undue importance to the ‘major’ events. It is one of those rare instances when its brevity is the greatest strength of a historical narrative. It is not that lacks in detail detailed, don’t get me wrong here. It does go on about how people did things to each other and developed theories about each other, about how people and nations thought and acted, about large numbers and statistics of war, and about how absurd it all was. It never says in so many words that it was absurd, of course. But it makes you realize that when history is told by someone who has (or seems/ attempts to seem) no agenda or alliances or a spirit of inquiry or even an interest in educating the readers (etc.) but is just told, told as if it is just something that happened – then that narrative has the power to show you how small everything was and how collectively we are a bunch of such magnificent buffoons. There is a touch of Douglas Adams in there somewhere, in that humor and in the sad irony that keeps on putting a half-smile on the reader’s face despite the subject matter being dealt with (Hint: I am not talking of Adams’ sci-fi books here). It is only apt that Ouředník is also the translator of Beckett and Queneau and perhaps most pertinently, of Rabelais.

This should be required reading for students of History – even as we learn about the great nations and the of great wars and of the heroes and of the generals and of the great science and its advances and of turning points and tragedies, we should also learns perspective and learn that history was just about a large bunch of people making decisions that would always seem absurd (like the proverbial best-laid schemes…) to everyone but themselves – either to other countries or at least to posterity . And that would be a valuable lesson… I am not doing justice to this, as I said it is hard to put a finger on what this book does. Just read it?

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Posted by on May 7, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Makers of Modern India by Ramachandra Guha

Makers of Modern India

Makers of Modern India by Ramachandra Guha

My Rating★★★☆☆

To make the Indian experience more central to global debates is one aim of this book. Another, and perhaps greater aim, is to make Indians more aware of the richness and relevance of their modern political tradition.

After such bold claims, I was disappointed to find that the book is in fact an anthology of Indian political writing. I strongly feel a commentary would have been better to meet the professed aims of the book and could have been made more impact-full with short relevant extracts

The questionable set chosen as “Makers of Modern India” include nineteen famous and not-so-famous names:
Rammohan Roy (Part I); Syed Ahmad Khan, Jotirao Phule, Tarabai Shinde, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Bal Gangadhar Tilak (Part II); M.K. Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, B.R. Ambedkar, M.A. Jinnah, E.V. Ramaswami and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (Part III); Jawaharlal Nehru, M.S. Golwalkar, C. Rajagopalachari, Rammanohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan and Verrier Elwin (Part IV); and Hamid Dalwai (Part V).

As a contemporary alternative to Argumentative Indian, I am not sure it succeeds – except by showing that a connected tradition built on boldness, challenge, contest and contrast existed in the vast correspondences that contemporary Indian thinkers were capable of producing. Guha illustrates this in a way by showing a connected series of thoughts evolving by bouncing around between the set of characters above, original thoughts arising and then being furiously debated and progressing in dramatic point-counter-point fashion (mostly Gandhian ideas of course, but still…) towards action and sometimes even more dramatic reaction in the crucible of Indian Democracy.

The essentially disputatious nature of this tradition is manifest throughout this book. The pity is that very little of this intellectual ‘tradition’ was meant for mass consumption or was based on a focused and sustained attempt at analyzing and evolving systems of thought but seem to be individual contributions to individual problems – a method that has always plagued Indian political thought and has probably resulted in the poverty of thought post-independence.

That sort of integration is probably what is needed before India can submit the results of her social and democratic experiment to the world and from it evolve a new conception of democracy relevant to a more diverse world than that existed when democracy was originally conceived. Guha has taken a first step in this direction and I sincerely hope a more synthetic attempt will follow one day.

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Posted by on May 5, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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His Majesty’s Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle Against Empire by Sugata Bose

His Majesty's Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India's Struggle Against Empire

His Majesty’s Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle Against Empire by Sugata Bose

My Rating★★★☆☆

One attempt too many at defending political decisions and one slur too many at the other leaders (Nehru, Gandhi, Patel among others), all the while trying to portray Bose as a visionary who alone had the true picture of world politics and the future, makes this a bit of a propaganda book. At many times it resorts to ‘if’s to wonder about what Bose might have done or speculates on how he could have influenced various momentous events. At other times it is a string of ‘but’s to explain all the questionable affiliations and decisions that plague Bose’s legacy. In the end Bose’s own statement is what truly reflects his impact on the politics of the day: ‘Subhas felt like “a political Rip Van Winkle.”

With Bose being a distant absentee during almost all the major turns in the play, the author had to resort to some questionably speculative tricks to make him the star actor. The ‘biography’ is all the worse for the fact that it spends most of its pages trying to follow Bose in his meandering journeys rather than trying to understand his political/ideological progress that culminated so historically.

There is no doubt that Bose was a man of high integrity and as true a son of Mother India in those turbulent times as any of the other celebrated leaders. He deserves to be on as high a pedestal as any of them does. They were strong men and hence had strong ideals and also individual tendencies. All of them could not be right and none of them could be right all the time, there is no need for an apology to be composed for any of them, same being the case with Bose. Four of Five stars to the Protagonist; Two of Five for the Biography.

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Posted by on May 3, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru

The Discovery of IndiaThe Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru

My Rating★★★★★

It is but folly for me to attempt to review a book so close to my heart. But, on my third reading of this book, it is time to finally go beyond the beauty of the prose and the elegance of Nehru’s presentation. It is time to see if the book achieves the objectives it sets out to achieve and judge it thus. I will let my earlier one-line review stand. Here goes…

The following passage reflects the objective of the book.

To know and understand India one has to travel far in time and space, to forget for a while her present condition with all its misery and narrowness and horror, and to have glimpses of what she was and what she did. ‘To know my country’, wrote Rabindranath Tagore, ‘one has to travel to that age, when she realized her soul and thus transcended her physical boundaries, when she revealed her being in a radiant magnanimity which illumined the eastern horizon, making her recognized as their own by those in alien shores who were awakened into a surprise of life; and not now when she has withdrawn herself into a narrow barrier of obscurity, into a miserly pride of exclusiveness, into a poverty of mind that dumbly revolves around itself in an unmeaning repetition of a past that has lost its light and has no message for the pilgrims of the future.’

Does it achieve such a grand objective? It sweeps across Indian history on very able wings and the history unfolds with irresistible drama and with the glow of a golden splendor. India of old comes alive for the reader in all its old grandeur. But this is dazzle. Does the expedition go beyond that and ‘discover’ India? It does and it doesn’t. The India glimmers and fades – reappearing every time Nehru takes an unbiased look back and disappearing every time he turns his gaze eagerly to the present.

The second half of the books quickly descends into a political commentary from being a historical study – and in this transition from history to the present, the ‘discovery’ is left incomplete in the urgency to expostulate on current happenings. This is a minor failure and Nehru is quite aware of it. He has to go back to the vagueness he started with to end his quest:

Nearly five months have gone by since I took to this writing and I have covered a thousand hand-written pages with this jumble of ideas in my mind. For five months I have travelled in the past and peeped into the future and sometimes tried to balance myself on that ‘point of intersection of the timeless with time.’ These month have been full of happenings in the world and the war has advanced rapidly towards a triumphant conclusion, so far as military victories go. […] Because of this business of thinking and trying to give some expression to my thoughts, I have drawn myself away from the piercing-edge of the present and moved along the wider expanses of the past and the future. But there must be an end to this wandering. If there was no other sufficient reason for it, there is a very practical consideration which cannot be ignored. I have almost exhausted the supply of paper that I had managed to secure after considerable difficulty and it is not easy to get more of it. The discovery of India — what have I discovered? It was presumptuous of me to imagine that I could unveil her and find out what she is today and what she was in the long past. […] Yet something has bound them together and binds them still. India is a geographical and economic entity, a cultural unity amidst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads. Overwhelmed again and again, her spirit was never conquered, and today when she appears to be the plaything of a proud conqueror, she remains unsubdued and unconquered. About her there is the elusive quality of a legend of long ago; some enchantment seems to have held her mind. She is a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive. There are terrifying glimpses of dark corridors which seem to lead back to primeval night, but also there is the fullness and warmth of the day about her. Shameful and repellent she is occasionally, perverse and obstinate, sometimes even a little hysteric, this lady with a past. But she is very lovable, and none of her children can forget her wherever they go or whatever strange fate befalls them. For she is part of them in her greatness as well as her failings, and they are mirrored in those deep eyes of hers that have seen so much of life’s passion and joy and folly, and looked down into wisdom’s well. Each one of them is drawn to her, though perhaps each has a different reason for that attraction or can point to no reason at all, and each sees some different aspect of her many-sided personality.

While that maybe so, this too is pardonable as even the political statements soar to heights sometimes and is amazing: (more in updates section)

The tragedy of Bengal and the famines of Orissa, Malabar, and other places are the final judgment on British rule in India. The British will certainly leave India, and their Indian Empire will become a memory, but what will they leave when they have to go, what human degradation and accumulated sorrow? Tagore saw this picture as he lay dying three years ago: ‘But what kind of India will they leave behind, what stark misery? When the stream of their centuries’ administration runs dry at last, what a waste of mud and filth they will leave behind them!’

The conclusion is a fitting one (though this passage is not really the conclusion). It was ultimately not about the Discovery of India as India is too diverse and manifold, it was an inquiry into the soul of a generation, a Discovery of their India, of the India then, of that generation, the greatest generation perhaps in our living memory:

My generation has been a troubled one in India and the world. We may carry on for a little while longer, but our day will be over and we shall give place to others, and they will live their lives and carry their burdens to the next stage of the journey. How have we played our part in this brief interlude that draws to a close? I do not know. Others of a later age will judge. By what standards do we measure success or failure? That too I do not know. We can make no complaint that life has treated us harshly, for ours has been a willing choice, and perhaps life has not been so bad to us after all. For only they can sense life who stand often on the verge of it, only they whose lives are not governed by the fear of death. In spite of all the mistakes that we may have made, we have saved ourselves from triviality and an inner shame and cowardice. That, for our individual selves, has been some achievement. ‘Man’s dearest possession is life, and since it is given to him to live but once, he must so live as not to be seared with the shame of a cowardly and trivial past, so live as not to be tortured for years without purpose, so live that dying he can say: “All my life and my strength were given to the first cause of the world — the liberation of mankind.”‘

 

If only we could also figure a path to save ourselves from triviality. If only we too could Discover the moving spirit of our own Generation.

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Posted by on May 1, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion

Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of ReligionMinds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion by Todd Tremlin

My Rating★★★★☆

Non-scholarly musings on a Scholarly work

So it is then established that Gods, Religious concepts and Rituals are natural effervescences of the kind of mind that we posses, parasitic on our cognitive processes. It (our minds) is uniquely suited to imbibe them.

Mark though: We cannot (yet) make a claim that our minds WILL produce Gods and Religions and Rituals if left to themselves (though historical evidence might indicate that this could well be the case) but only that our minds cannot avoid the God Meme once exposed to it. Our society is very efficient at ensuring that.

An Atheist or an Agnostic is in this way, in this fundamental cognitive aspect of the nature of our cognitive construction, indistinguishable from a Theist – once exposed to a God concept they cannot but let their mind’s velcro stick to those burs forever.

The Theist adheres to a theological notion, the Agnostic to a scientific/skeptic’s credo and an Atheist to his own brand of faith in a new-found Religion of Science (reminding one of the Buddhists who tried to go nuclear (agnostic) and ended up as theistic in daily life).

But, we do have two brains inside us (yes, that is quite a ‘new’ finding too)) as Daniel Kahneman elaborates in his new book (Thinking, Fast and Slow) and only our rational brain system (read pathway) can entertain these abstract concepts. Our emotional/instinctive (read pathway) brain will still repeatedly resort to the God Concept we are familial (thus familiar) with in most of our our “on-line” thinking – that is in our daily (non-abstract-thinking) life.

“Deal with it”, the message is: We are all the same – Theists, Agnostics, Atheists or whatever we call ourselves, we are all in the same boat believing in the same agencies “on-line” and professing different versions of our pet abstractions “off-line”.

Not even managing to fool ourselves.

Disclaimer:

The above review is not a summation of the book but more a running with the ball tossed by it. The book is a study and an overview of the new Science of the Cognitive Study of Religion and deals with Religion in a new way – as a cognitive by-product of our psychology and our evolution. It is thoroughly fascinating and can lead to all sorts of ideas just as any new science should.

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Posted by on February 23, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire

Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an EmpireIndian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex von Tunzelmann

My Rating★★★★☆

Tunzelmann has concocted a very readable and balanced history of the last days of Empire. Tunzelmann avoids demonizing any sect, individual or nation and shows the circuitous routes through which every decision was squeezed out, many tragedies averted and many more inadvertently precipitated.

He shows the human frailties and noble aspirations of all of the major participants and does not shirk away from exploring the controversial bullheadedness of Gandhi or from going into great detail about the relationship between Nehru and the Mountbattens, especially the amorous ones.

This was perhaps the best handled of all the topics by Tunzelmann – he weaves an almost spiritual love story between Nehru and Edwina that borders on the outrageous but always forces the reader to forgive two extraordinarily humane characters who happened to need each other a bit too much. Even Jinnah and Patel (and Churchill – if only he had met Nehru or Gandhi in person a bit earlier than when he did!) who are often slotted as extremists show their emotional sides and it does feel like Tunzelmann gives them their due – enough blame but also enough praise.

Tunzelmann does dwell too much on the Mountbattens – almost to the extend that the reader might well start imagining that they were the Empire that the book is meant to talk about and their “secrets” were the “Secret” that the subtitle of the book boasts about. If that is the case, the book does indeed uncover some welcome secrets about the end of “Empire”.

But, from a political and historic standpoint, there were not many secrets that Tunzelmann brings to the fore. He does throw light on some of the most-discussed events such as the drawing of the Kashmir boundary lines, the allocation of Punjab districts, the annexation of Hyderabad etc and how all of these were such intensely personal decisions – different people at the helm might have resulted in drastically different outcomes – they were less politically motivated than emotionally driven.

For these insights, Indian Summer was a thoroughly readable and unbiased book and well worth reading to understand the inscrutable and amazing human actors that populated one of the most dramatic events of the century.

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Posted by on February 3, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair GameMoneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis

My Rating★★★☆☆

It was a better story before I knew the whole story.

Almost every book on randomness I have read had a reference to Moneyball and I had built up my own version about this story (I had even told a few people that version!) and it imagined everybody doing what Billy Beane was doing, and Billy Beane doing some sort of probability distribution among all players and randomly picking his team, winning emphatically, and thus proving that a truly random pick of players is the equivalent of a true-simulation of the market and just like how no considered selection of stock picks can ever outperform the market in the long run, a truly random representation of the baseball market cannot be outperformed by the interventionist methods of other teams over a long season. That is the story I wanted to hear. My apologies to anyone to whom I have spouted this story – it is not true. It is still probable though, when the next radical Billy Beane comes along in sports.

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Posted by on August 19, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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