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Plato’s Republic: An Apology

Republic

Republic by Plato

My Rating★★★★★

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

***

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


The Republic: An Apology

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

~ Alfred North Whitehead

The Famous Republic

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

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

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

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

The Offensive Republic

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

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

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

The Misunderstood Republic

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

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

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

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

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The Personal Constitution: A Constitution of the Perfect Life

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

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

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

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

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

Philosopher, Be Thyself

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

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

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


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

OR


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

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

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

 

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Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs by Muhammad Yunus

Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity's Most Pressing NeedsBuilding Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs by Muhammad Yunus

My Rating★★★★☆

Is Yunus the only practicing (as in the type who never came across the proverbial armchair yet) nobel laureate in economics? (his field is, if not the nobel)

His ideas and beliefs are rooted in and grown from the experience of running what sounds like hundreds of companies and offshoots and sister concerns – almost all successful, launching an entire industry and redefining one of the oldest businesses of the world.

Yet, in spite of full awareness of the credentials of the author, everything inside a reader militates against the seemingly utopian picture Yunus paints. You want to shout at him: all this is fine but REALITY is different! But the reader forgets – Yunus has seen and succeeded in the stark reality of one of the poorest, most torn landscapes in the world and he is proving that the ‘reality’ that economics teaches us is a very constrained reality. All the talk of incentives being the fuel of the human growth engine fall flat. But you don’t give in, you keep drilling deep holes in every cheerful statement of Yunus throughout the introductory chapters, after all you have years of economic training to back you up.

Finally Yunus gets to the case studies, and you read on with growing astonishment that the very principles outlined earlier, the principles that you had in your economic wisdom so thoroughly cut into pieces, all seem to just work on the ground. You scratch your head and try to figure it out. Then you forget your criticism and congratulate yourself on your own positive outlook towards humanity. Until next time.

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Posted by on September 20, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Meditations: A New TranslationMeditations: A New Translation by Marcus Aurelius

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Marcus Aurelius must have been a prolific reader. He sure was a prolific note-taker, for these meditations are surely his study-notes(?- after all he was a ‘philosopher’ from age 12). I don’t know of the publishing system at the time but where are the detailed footnotes and references? Marcus Aurelius is quite a wise man or at least he read enough wise men. He sure nailed it as far as boring a reader is concerned. No better way to establish your book’s wisdom quotient.

I am being needlessly caustic of course(do note my rating above). The book is quotable in almost every page and is good to dip in to now and then, you might well find an aphorism that fits the mood just right every time. And that is why the book is a classic and so well-loved.

Don’t read it as a scholar, you will end up like this reviewer. As I said earlier – He is like the wisdom of ages. Aargh 🙂 Not that it is all bad – it is like reading an old uncles’s notes after he has been preaching to you all your life.

Good that I am a stoic too. All ills are imaginary. Yes.

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Posted by on March 8, 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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The Good Man Jesus & The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus & the Scoundrel ChristThe Good Man Jesus & the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

My Rating★★★☆☆

Well played, Pullman.

Philip Pullman meets Alyosha and tells him his story.

Alyosha flushed. ‘But… that’s absurd!’ he cried. ‘Your poem is in praise of Jesus, not in blame of Him — as you meant it to be. And who will believe you about freedom? Is that the way to understand it? That’s not the idea of it in the Orthodox Church…. That’s Rome, and not even the whole of Rome, it’s false – those are the worst of the Catholics, the Inquisitors, the Jesuits!..’

Later Ivan came storming into Pullman’s front porch, after learning from Alyosha about the novel length expansion of his prose poem. ‘That’s plagiarism!’ cried Ivan to Pullman’s face, highly delighted. ‘You stole that from my poem! Thank you though.’

Then he turned on a surprised Alyosha and announced, ‘Get up, Alyosha, it’s time we were going, both of us.’

Pullman went back to the project he was working on, what is a little borrowing as long as you borrow from the best.

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

 

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Bleakness Can Be Inspiring

Bleakness can be inspiring:
A bloated river, a ruined city,
Pictures in an old history text-book;
A metropolis blinded by fog,
  Deafened by apologetic airline announcements;
A manual projection camera displayed,
Outside a renovated theater, taking the leap;
Scores of employees in funeral attires,
Walking back from their own graves.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2012 in Creative, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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Philosophy Bites

Philosophy BitesPhilosophy Bites by David Edmonds

My Rating: ★★☆☆☆

This book mostly consists of philosophers raising some interesting questions and then failing miserably to answer them. It really is a hodgepodge of concepts where they stick their feet into every interesting philosophical pond available but hardly spends the time required to really test the waters or to gauge the depths. So while the book was not very valuable from the perspective of finding good answers, it was still a good exercise in framing a lot of new (to me) questions or reframing some old ones, and that is after all the essence of all philosophy. Once we have answers to any question, or have the proper way to ask it, then it crosses over from philosophy to science.

So just for getting one thinking in these wide variety if questions, the book was fascinating and worth the time in reading and probably it is also worthwhile putting down here the major questions and also a few attempted answers.

The first question to be addressed was whether the “yuck” reaction ie whether moral or physical disgust should be a yardstick for policy measures or for any informed judgment. The answer was a unilateral No and I will cover this further in my review here.

Another question to be taken up was on whether Relativity should be the foundation of all morality. This Relativism would be any theory which encapsulates the idea that there are individual differences in morality (for which there may be a cultural explanation) and that there are no absolute truths about any moral judgements that we make. Is it all just a matter of taste? The Relativist would answer that it indeed is, he would say that ‘you’ve got your truth and I’ve got mine’ – end of story. But the trouble is, it’s not the end of the story because we’re each seeking to impose a policy on the other.

To illustrate this take an example where I want people to purge al streets of the menace of street dogs and you want them not to, then just at the level of desire we’ve got a disagreement and you could be expected to act to prevent this dog-culling and I act to promote it. We’ve got policies that are in conflict and we might come to blows, as people do. Suppose you say ‘Dog Culling No!’ and I say ‘Dog Culling Yes!’, and in comes Rosy The Relativist, and she says ‘Hey you two, why don’t you just realize that stray dogs are good for you and bad for him and that’s the end of it?’ The question I want to ask is, ‘How does this help?’ Whatever led you to oppose the culling or wish to tolerate the stray dogs is presumably still there; whatever led me to promote it is still there. The idea that we’re not in conflict just starts to look farcical. And the conflict has not been resolved by Rosy – it hasn’t even been helped.

The question of how to treat animals too is explored. How do we regulate cruelty to them and decide where to draw the moral lines? The answer that Peter Singer puts forth is two fold, any creature that is capable of making plans fo the future should be treated with that respect for its own ambitions and any creature capable of suffering should be given the consideration of alleviating any needless suffering. Singer brings up the example of factory farming where we confine animals in conditions that for their entire lives make them miserable. We have to ask: what do we get out of this? Well, we produce food a little more cheaply. But we are not starving, and we can afford to pay a little more for our food. I don’t think there’s much doubt that that’s not something that can be justified if we give equal consideration to the sufferings of the hens and the pigs.

Then the discussion turns to the question of Human Enhancement for excelling in sports and other competitive fields. the thrust of the argument is that if we enhance human performance artificially sports will lose its meaning, we watch it for the human element, to see people overcoming the odds of their bodies to do impossible things. If they are no longer ‘impossible’ and inconceivable, then why watch them?

The next part was about friendship and I could not make out any real questions in this discussion except a back and forth about how can we justify the morality of giving special treatment to our friends over strangers. Are some friends more equal than others? The answer is that the social morals of treating all the same is about equality but friendship is about individuality.

Is cosmopolitanism really that important and how far should toleration just for the sake of toleration go? Can we allow practices we consider morally depraved just because they are part of the cultural tradition of a community? The only anser seems to be that if these practices are imposed on people who are not in a position to make an informed choice for themselves, children, for instance, you might want to be paternalistic and protect them from it for their own good. Adults making informed choices would be a different case. But ultimately it should be about giving the people in that community the education and the informed choices so that they can rise above the blinding customs and then make a decision for themselves, without having them imposed on them from a Big Brother who knows better.

The question was again picked up in the section about Multiculturalism and how Tolerance should not be the word we should be using. To tolerate something is different from real acceptance of the culture. The problem with ‘tolerance’ is what it sounds like – suffering someone’s existence rather than dealing with them violently.

The tricky nature of epistemic injustice, namely testimonial injustice is also explored. That’s when one person is telling another person something and the hearer, owing to some prejudice, deflates the level of credibility they give to the speaker. A good example that we might relate to to understand this abstract concept is the end of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, where we find the defendant being charged with rape just because none of the white jurors believe the word of a ‘negro’, then the injustice matters deeply, and indeed in that case the consequences prove fatal.

Who can try and define the nature of Infinity? The mathematicians define it thus: if you can pair off a sub-collection of any given collection with the whole collection, that means you’re talking about an infinite collection of objects.

Scientific realism is to believe that everything that science postulates is really here and is real, even if our sense organs can never perceive it. The conclusion seemed to be that we should be skeptics about some areas of science which has a history of producing wildly wrong theories (such as astronomy?) and realistic about the sciences with a better track record (chemistry?). But with such a short history, do we have enough data to really decide?

This was followed by a very abstract discussion on time and how we treat it so differently from spatial measures. I have nothing worthwhile to comment on this really. Then came the section on the nature of the relationship between the mind and the body as Tim Crane tried to explore it. Most of the discussion was centered on Vedantic philosophy and the Upanishads and is much too detailed and in any case the question is more important!

Tim Williamson then tries to explain how to classify Vagueness and boundary conditions. When do you start and stop being a teenager? When does a heap of sand stop being a ‘heap’ if you remove one grain at a time? At what hour, or minute, or second, does one become middle-aged? Basically it is an exploration of the famous Sorites paradoxes.

The discussion from here on centers on Art and how to define and classify them. Apparently, the fine arts as we now know them today, was the invention of one man – a French thinker called the Abbé Batteaux. The real question though is when does any object get classified as Art? If it is beautiful? Beautiful to whom? Is institutionalization inevitable in a field like the Arts?

Alain de Botton makes an appearance to talk about aesthetics and architecture. His main argument is that form and functionality are important but aesthetics is as important since that too one of the fundamental function so architecture. To explain the real function of a building, Botton invokes John Ruskin – it should encompass both sheltering and also what John Ruskin calls ‘speaking’, when he says buildings shouldn’t just shelter us, they should speak to us. They should speak to us of all the things that we think are most important and that we need to be reminded of on a daily basis. So the idea is that buildings should be the repositories of certain values, ideas, suggestions, and that they should reflect these back to us, so as to inspire us. I was strongly reminded of the speech made by Arkady Bogdanov during the meteor shower episode in that fantastic book Red Mars, and this was the only reason I felt that I agreed with Ruskin on this one.

From art we move to wine and about how to truly appreciate it. And then takes a radical shift into the possible motivations for watching a tragedy.

The discussion was about resolving the paradox of Aristotle when he says Tragedy gives pleasure through pain. This paradox of tragedy is dissolved in effect by saying Aristotle was wrong. The tragic poet’s task is not really to generate in the audience a peculiar species of pleasure. What he should have said, and arguably what he really means, is that a tragic poet aims at giving us a certain kind of insight.

From here on, the discussions are about God and Atheism and so all the really bored ones can get off the bus now.

Don Cupitt says that he has given up on the ideas of a pre-existent self, world, and God, quite apart from human belief, human commitment, and human descriptions. God doesn’t exist apart from our faith in him is his belief now. John Cottingham exploring the Meaning of Life itself says that God is not necessary and neither is religion. Spirituality and spiritual practices independent of both can still give us the calm and peace that we seek. Stephen Law then delves in the famous Problem of Evil: If we begin with the thought that God is all-powerful, all-good, and indeed all-knowing, the question, then, is why does evil exist? or why does evil exist in quite the quantities that it does? There are two different problems here. The first is called the logical problem of evil. Some people argue that the existence of God is logically incompatible with the existence of any suffering or evil whatsoever. The other problem of evil is this. If you believe in an all-powerful, all-good God, why is there quite so much suffering and evil in the world? Surely an all-powerful, all-good God would have the ability to produce a world with far less suffering, and, if He’s all-good, then He would surely want the world to contain far less suffering. Why, then, is there quite so much suffering? So, on the evidential problem of evil, it’s the quantity of evil that’s really the issue, whereas on the logical problem it’s the existence of any evil or any suffering at all that’s deemed the problem. The quantity of suffering is evidence that there is no God.

Keith Ward proposes that a return to eastern Idealism might solve the problem of this definition of God. But, then comes A.C. Grayling who says no to all conceptions of God in his first statement but never raises a finger against any idea that the Judaeo-Christian personal God in his talks. But he is surely a Radical Atheist, rejecting the idea that there are gods or supernatural agencies of any kind in the world. It is even a rejection of the idea that there might have been supernatural agencies at some earlier point in the universe’s history, which is the deist position. He calls himself a naturalist, but the only hole I could detect in his argument was if he was confronted with the numerous ideas of God that never ascribes anything ‘supernatural’ to the concept.

The entire book was in an interview format and most of the times the answers are more evasive than conclusive in any way. But since these are supposed to be the leading philosophers in their respective fields, we can at least take heart that they know as little as we do?

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Posted by on March 23, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Oft In My Thought

Oft In My Thought

Ah, how often I have sought in my days,

To emulate the great leaders, and be gently led,

By their virtuous actions and well-laid plans.

How often I charted the best courses to take

To reach those heights of thought and action;

And thought evermore of what best will portray

Their everlasting influence on this humble self,

That will make this world to be as they always saw,

In their lofty wishes and their fanciful dreams.

.

But all those thoughts, alas, they too crumble and dry,

And serve no more the masters that send them forth,

Who are now but ashes or just food to now dead worms,

And so are their thoughts but food to a few blind men.

And this world that lets the best of it die,

And leaves not even a soul or a smile behind,

For what I should try, what lasting effect,

When in showing the virtues, I forget them more?

.

How to pass that time of the night,

When all too familiar shame shows its head:

Have you forgotten all your virtues,

It asks with the malevolent sweet smiles,

The dead might banish sins and conquer great heights,

But will the living learn, it sneers and slips away.

.

To what profit we move, to what end we sing,

Praises of these men, and put their faces in public places?

The most good, most fair and most just of men;

They no longer walk this realm, what omen there?

And when the young can no longer dare imagine

That their footsteps once hallowed these very ruins…

.

This poem is dedicated to my last reading of:

The Story of My Experiments With Truth

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The Story of My Experiments With Truth by Mahatma Gandhi

My Rating: ★★★★★

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Posted by on March 13, 2012 in Books, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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Book Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon By Saladin Ahmed

Throne of the Crescent Moon (The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, #1)Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

After promising Saladin that I’ll be reviewing the book within a week of its coming out, I stand ashamed that it took me this long to get to it. Probably the reason was that in spite of all the acclaim I had heard heaped on it, I knew in my heart that ‘Throne of the Crescent Moon’ is still an out and out ‘Sword And Sorcery’ fantasy genre novel and I had made a conscious decision to stay away from genre novels. But now that I have just finished reading it, I have to admit that I am reminded of why I love the fantasy genre above all others. It is because authors like Saladin can bring alive characters and situations and bathe them in all the fantastic magic imaginable and still make them all appear so real and so part of our world. The world-weariness of the fat old codger with the big belly, Doctor Adoulla Makhslood and the internal conflicts of the scrawny zealot, Raseed and the other quirks of every character speaks directly to us and the characters come alive in vivid detail, especially since the author takes care to not spare us the coarser details as well.

There is a level of perfection in Ahmed’s style and narration that you can feel in every page. A tight, well polished reserve in the choice of words and in the slow construction of the plot. The plot is in reality not of central importance in the book. Ahmed spends more than three-quarters of the book developing his characters, making us inhabiting the heads of various characters as they travel about the city of Dhamsawaat, using these quiet spaces to put in vast details about the inner life of these characters and the outer complexity of the fictional city and its teeming complex life

Unfortunately, this strength of the book is also its weakness. The final climax can only be called anti-climactic in its lack of devoted pages as well as the lack of action, not to mention the lack of any real feeling of conclusion. There is no explanation provided for the existence of the evil they are battling or for the reason of its existence. I do not want to go into plot details here, but the fact that this is the first in the series should not be an excuse for so little to happen in the book. The characters are developed and primed for a series and the world-building is detailed and complete but the sense of anticipation or of denouement that would draw one back to a series or make one wait eagerly for the next edition is sadly lacking.

But then, as Ahmed makes clear in the last musings of Adoulla, this book was perhaps not intended to be an epic with world-changing climaxes and thundering, sky-splitting battles. Maybe the world-weariness and resignation of Adoulla is also the premise of the book – To remind us that no matter what you achieve, life still goes on with all the challenges still there, undiminished and after the night celebrating your greatest achievement, the next day again dawns and you have to trudge on.

If you are a fantasy fan who has been mourning the superficiality that permeates the genre and is on the lookout for a reflective and quiet but rich and satisfying read, this might be worth picking up. Don’t let the religious overtones and the constant allusions to God and the ‘Avenging Angel’ put you off too much, those are just a part of the magic world the characters inhabit and the book is not trying to convey any religious messages. The invocations from the Holy Book etc., serve as spells in Ahmed’s world and all are weapons of God in a drawn out struggle against the forces of evil which might reach an epic conclusion in some future book in the series. In fact, these religious allusions help in adding texture and credibility to the deeply arabic experience that Ahmed is trying to create. This adds to the rich Arabian atmosphere and the originality with which a glorious Muslim kingdom is painted along with the language, the addresses and the mannerisms will all provide for an authentic 12th Century Arabian Nights like experience.

For a debut author, Saladin Ahmed shows exceptional mastery of his craft and this book is unlikely to disappoint any serious reader who is looking for a bit more than a few swords slashing and spells misfiring. If nothing else, this book was a tuition class in plot and character development by Ahmed, maybe as a practical example to aid the people he helps through his Novel Critiques ad commentaries. This series and the world that Ahmed has created definitely has the potential to develop into something amazing. The groundwork has been lain in this first book and here is hoping that Saladin Ahmed manages to build a grand castle on it soon.

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Posted by on March 9, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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The Rise of The Nazis: A Concise History

The Coming of the Third ReichThe Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans

My Rating: ★★★★☆

Many questions perplex us about the Nazis, about the atrocities they committed and about the beginnings of the Second World War. How could one of the most advanced, highly cultured, industrialized and modern nation states in Europe allow such horrors to come to pass? How could democracy be replaced so easily? How did an extremist party lurking at the fringes of political life take over the entire government in such a shot time without ever raising the wrath of the bigger parties or of the people? How did they establish a one party state without ever commanding a majority in any single election?

To answer these perplexing questions, Richard Evans takes us to the time of the Second Reich established by Bismarck and builds the story of the german nation and the foreign influences that moulded its thoughts and political structure in a well paced and minutely detailed history.

It was not a single person by the name of Hitler or a single freak party called the Nazis that precipitated this wild descent into madness that led Germany into the most devastating war in history. A wide variety of political, economic and ideological factors contributed to developing these events. Evans tries to track the growth of ideas such as antisemitism, radical nationalism, conspiracy theories and the cult of violence from the time of Bismarck. He starts the book withe the question “Why start with Bismarck?” and never really answers it. In my view, the origins of antisemitism and the wild support nazis enjoyed among protestant electorates could have been explored if one chapter had been dedicated to the history of germany before Bismarck and focussing on martin Luther and the protestant movement. But, as it is, Evans chose to not make it a study of the entire germanic history so as not to give us the impression that there was a historic inevitability to the whole process and because of this he never fully manages to convey the real reason for antisemitism and protestant support anywhere in the book, both of which are such prime candidates for investigation.

Even though this is a review of the book, because my real purpose of reading the book was to understand the course of events and the causal connections that led to the world war, I will try to trace out the history from a while earlier than Evans and then join his narrative as we get to Bismarck.

Antisemitism was a cultural phenomenon in Europe much before the Nazis and extreme violence against the Jews can be traced back to the First Crusade when they started being branded as ‘Christ-killers‘ and were put in the same bracket as Muslims, progressed through the Inquisitions and Expulsions in various countries and culminated in the Final Solution in Nazi Germany.

There are two types of Antisemitism – Cultural and Religious. Cultural antisemitism is defined as “that species of anti-Semitism that charges the Jews with corrupting a given culture and attempting to supplant or succeeding in supplanting the preferred culture with a uniform, crude, “Jewish” culture.” Religious Antisemitism is the “christ-killer” version mentioned earlier. Cultural antisemitism was what was adopted by the Nazis (broadly allowing this category to allow for racial Antisemitism too which discriminates based on race).

Tracing back to the roots of antisemitism in Europe will take us to its deeply religious beginnings and this is probably why Evans chose to not cover it in detail. In any case, this religious hatred soon transformed into cultural and economic hated against their affluence and culminated in racial hatred once the budding ideas of Eugenics provided fuel to the fire.

In the context of the Industrial Revolution, Jews rapidly urbanized and experienced a period of greater social mobility. With the decreasing role of religion in public life tempering religious antisemitism, a combination of growing nationalism, the rise of eugenics, and resentment at the socio-economic success of the Jews led to the newer, and more virulent, racist antisemitism.

While these were pan-European trends, a dangerous precedent was set in Germany during the Protestant Reformation when Martin Luther described Jews as a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.” Luther wrote that they are “full of the devil’s feces … which they wallow in like swine,” and the synagogue is an “incorrigible whore and an evil slut“. This treatise is supposed to have had a major influence on the Nazi movement.

Lutheranism was also ideologically very close to the kind of radical nationalism that motivated first Bismarck, then the far Right in Germany. The origins of the beginning of a sense of German identity began with the Protestant Reformation begun by Martin Luther that resulted in the spread of a standardized common German language and literature.

The Three Reichs

The whole of modern German history has been a nostalgic and mad attempt at regaining the old glories of the Holy Roman Reich which was also called theHoly Roman Empire of the German Nation’. This was soon ended by the Napoleonic Wars that threw Germany into confusion and made it a faction of warring states. Advocacy of a German nation began to become an important political force in response to the invasion of German territories by France under Napoleon. And the more distant Germany grew from that state, the more they remembered the First Reich as the ideal state when Germany was superior and dreamed of returning to these glory days.

When finally Bismarck successfully unified Germany again in 1871, he became the ‘ideal leader’ who was bringing back the old order and a national hero for defeating those hated French who had humiliated Germany earlier. He even called this unified germany The Second Reich.

Bismarck and Germany was obsessed with unification by any means, by “iron and blood”. After his defeats of Denmark and Austria, France declared war on Germany, which ended with a thumping German victory and annexations of parts of France. Soon the new German Empire was established as a federation of 25 states with the King of Prussia as the Emperor. Ironically enough, this royal coronation and proclamation as the emperor of Germany was conducted at Versailles. Bismarck himself was elevated to the position of Imperial Chancellor.

After his initial military campaign, Bismarck spent the est of his life trying to achieve political stability in Europe and forging alliances. He was also instrumental in Germany not participating in the wild colonial acquisitions that the rest of Europe obsessed about. But with the death of the old king, the new Kaiser Wilhelm II came into power, and his careful foreign policies fell into disfavor, the new Emperor seeking rapid expansion and colonization. He was forced to resign from the Reichstag and died soon after. Under Wilhelm II, Germany was to pursue belligerent policies that polarized the major European powers who were soon to unite with France against Germany in time for the First World War.

Bismarck’s most important legacy was the unification of Germany. Following this unification, Germany became one of the most powerful nations in Europe. However, this was not the complete re-unification that the people wanted and many felt that something was yet left to be done by another Leader or Führer. The figure of Bismarck became legend and the romantic ideal of a leader for the german people became someone who was a militaristic dictator who would do anything for the nation. Bismarck, a devout Protestant also left a legacy of anti-Catholicism in Germany which led to the vast protestant electorates that fueled Nazi ascension later on. He also left a legacy of anti-socialism and suppression.

The First World War

After having dismissed Bismarck, William II was to launch a foreign policy that culminated in the fatal decision to support Austria-Hungary in 1914 that precipitate the World War. His policies led to the gradual weakening of the bonds Bismarck had formed with Russia an with Austria-Hungary. Meanwhile France had recovered from its last defeat and was itching for revenge. French soon formed treaties with Britain and then Britain with Russia, thus forming the Triple Entente. An increasingly insecure Germany started an arms race which escalated very fast throughout Europe. Austria-Hungary in its own expansion drive started a conflict with Serbia which ended in a declaration of war with them. Russia decided to support the Serbs and once Germany announced support for Austria-Hungary, France too joined the fray, with UK joining them soon.

Germany was the biggest power in Europe at this time and entered the war expecting huge gains and certain victory. They annexed huge portions of Russia and laid down draconian laws under the military legend Hindenburg. They incurred huge debts expecting to repay them with the spoils of war. But once their strategic mistakes led to America entering the war, it all went quickly downhill for them culminating in the Treaty of Versailles. The period before this had also seen the German Revolution that led to the establishment of a republic called the Weimar Republic and the Kaiser Wilhelm II fled the country. It was this Weimar Republic that had negotiated and signed the Treaty of Versailles.

Hindenburg and other senior German leaders tried to soften the defeat by spreading the story that their armies had not really been defeated. This resulted in the stab-in-the-back legend, which attributed Germany’s defeat to intentional sabotage of the war effort by insiders, particularly by Jews, Socialists, and Bolsheviks. This led to the denouncement of the Weimar Republic government leaders who signed the Armistice on November 11, 1918, as the “November Criminals“. Conservatives, nationalists, ex-military leaders and political theorists began to speak critically about the peace. Weimar politicians, socialists, communists, Jews, and sometimes even Catholics were viewed with suspicion due to presumed extra-national loyalties. It was claimed that they had not supported the war and had played a role in selling out Germany to its enemies.

The Treaty of Versailles was particularly harsh in its terms but Richard Evans draws our attention to the fact that the terms that Germany had envisaged on successful defeat of its enemies were far worse and even the treaty force on Russia was comparable. The Treaty asked Germany to take full responsibility for the war and to make heavy annual reparation payments to the victorious allies. The total cost of these reparations was assessed at 132 billion Marks in 1921 which is roughly equivalent to US $442 billion in 2012. The final payments were made on 4 October 2010. It also forced rapid disarmament and restrictions on weapons manufacture and limitation on military troops to 100,000.

The conditions of the Treaty was to be decisive in many ways as the reparation payments pushed german economy over the brink and the military restrictions left german military mostly a spectator to internal changes and led to rapid gain in the importance of the paramilitary and the police. At the same time it led to a repressed rage among the german people that cascaded a series of political events that led to the radicalization of the entire political atmosphere.

Adolf Hitler

Hitler was not German. He was born in Austria and his family emigrated to and from Germany in his early years. His father was serving in the Austrian Government and his conflicts with his father was among the reasons postulated as having caused Hitler to develop a strong affinity for Germany and a hatred for Austria. He started considering Germany his spiritual homeland. Hitler dreamed of becoming an artist but his strict and architectural paintings were rejected as unfit by the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna. This led him to cultivate a deep anti-establishment mentality.

This was also the time when the Weimar Republic was experiencing strong political difficulties and the theories of Social Darwinism, Nationalism and Eugenics were gaining in popularity. Hitler grew up reading some of the early propagandists of these theories and they deeply influenced him. Driven by these impulses Hitler joined the Bavarian army to fight for Germany in the First World War. During the war he was injured and taken to a remote hospital to recuperate. Hitler too like the rest of Germany had gone into the war with assured victory and future glories of his nation in mind.

When news finally reached him of Germany’s loss and of the Treaty, he was deeply shocked, humiliated and scarred for life. He was soon to pick up on the concepts of the stab-in-the-back legend and of the November Criminalsto explain this to himself and to fuel his hatred and his ascension.

He returned and continued working for the army and drifted though various movements before finding a mentor who recognized that Hitler was a good orator. Soon Hitler was using is speaking skills to motivate various factions under the direction of his superiors. He became a leading speaker at the National Socialist German Workers Party and soon became their leader and tendered his resignation to the army. His vitriolic speeches and charisma transformed the party and soon their numbers began to swell and his speeches started to attract huge attendance.

As the Nazi party grew, Hitler fueled by his hatred for the government and inspired by Mussolini, organized a coup or a “Putsch” to seize power and was completely thwarted and thrown into jail. This convinced him and the party that they have to keep up appearances of legality and come to power through the democratic system itself.

A gradual rebuilding of the Nazi party and a building up of it paramilitary wing was pursued after this even as the Hitler Personality Cult grew and grew and grew. They were waiting for an opportunity to make the first push towards power. Until this time only the radical right wingers and the nationalists were joining the party. Then came the Great Depression. Nazis used the fear and the confusion to drive home their ideology and became more popular party. In the 1932 election, two years into the depression, Hitler came second to Hindenburg but was already a force to be reckoned with, with over 35% votes, mostly from protestant electorates and Prussia.

The inability to form a majority government lead to Hindenburg inviting Hitler to be the Chancellor of Germany in 1933. The party still had no political majority and Hitler was intended to be only a rubber stamp. But then came the famous Reichstag Fire Decree, which was the response to the parliament being set on fire by an alleged communist party member. this gave Hitler an excuse to allege a Communist Plot against Germany and suspend basic rights and undertake a violent suppression of the Communist party, which was a much bigger party than the nazis in terms of parliamentary representatives. He then called for a re-election. With the Communist Party effectively suppressed, Nazis were able to gain a majority vote but was still short of the 51% required for an absolute majority.

Even though Hitler did not command a full majority, he was able to pressurize the parliament to vote for an Enabling Act. THis was achieved by banning Communist and Nation Socialist party members from attending the vote, which effectively made the Act illegal by all standards. Nevertheless, the vote was passed and the Act gave the Nazis complete legislative control for the next four years.

The Act was soon used to give an appearance of legality to what turned out to be a systematic and grotesquely violent suppression of all other political parties. All political opposition was wiped away with street violence, killings and finally formal dissolution of the parties. The Nazi paramilitary wing was given the right of the Police and was free to commit any atrocities and the military were soon reconciled and made an ally. Soon Nazis were organizing a campaign to make all social groups such as sports organizations and social clubs to be centralized under the Nazi banner in a process they called “Synchronization”.

With the political parties suppressed and all chances of any discordant voices eliminated, the Nazis finally let loose their racial campaigns and massacres and systematic eradication of Jews, Socialists and Communists from all social, political and economic positions in the entire country.

Thus with Hitler as the Supreme Commander in charge of what he called The Third Reich, with his minions wrecking havoc and with the German people perplexed at how all this came to pass, Richard Evans takes leave of us, daring us if we have the heart to continue the journey in the next book.

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Posted by on March 5, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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A Shorter History of Myth

A Short History of MythA Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Karen Armstrong attempts to take us through the story of how myth has evolved in human history, affected its progress, how the contemporary society deals with it and the future direction it might or should take. For such a vast scope, a book that is less than 200 pages was bound to end up with a sketch that is barely an outline, let alone a complete history.

For a student of myth, this cannot even serve as an introduction to the scope and breadth of the study of mythologies, but for the casual reader, it can provide some interesting tea-time conversation at best.

To cut a short story shorter, here is A Shorter History of Myth:

The Paleolithic Period: The Mythology of the Hunters (c. 20000 to 8000 BCE)

We are meaning-seeking creatures. From our earliest awakenings of consciousness, we started to ascribe meanings and stories to things we found among and around us. The traditions of myth started in tis earliest phase of human history. As hunter-gatherers, Armstrong contends that human’s being the only creatures conscious of their acts had a deep apprehension, a guilt, about killing other creatures for their own sustenance. So they built up stories to explain this and developed a cult of sacrifice to give the act of killing a symbolic significance of supplication and respect.

In this society, the males probably dominated and the mythology reflects this male domination. Most of these primitive gods were male. Everything that was wondrous and unexplainable were made the stuff of myth, The gods were the architects of the world and everything was orchestrated by them. The sky and the rains and thunder and fire were the great mysteries and these formed the earliest myths, the earliest gods.

The Neolithic Period: The Mythology of the Farmers (c. 8000 to 4000 BCE)

Then we invented farming. As our way of life changed, our myths too began to change. The cyclic nature of seasons and rain became more important than abstract entities life the sky and planets. The old gods were either forgotten or changed into agricultural deities. The greatest mystery now was this wonder – that earth can renew itself and bring out food for their sustenance. The seed they sow was converted as if in a womb. The Myth of the Earth-Goddess started to grow. Of a sustaining goddess that demands great sacrifice. The act of sex began to have symbolic meaning, human copulation aiding and abetting in earth’s fertility. With fertility cults and the personal gods who bring rain and floods and with a mother goddess that responded to care, the world was a very personal interaction with these mythical beings.

The Early Civilisations (c. 4000 to 800 BCE)

Soon agriculture gave way to city building and more organized ways of life. Men started to have more control over their lives. Irrigation and organized agriculture brought more and more of the mysteries of nature under man’s control. THe myths about the fertility gods too now started to sound remote. Myths that do not touch our everyday lives tend to die out, ignored.

But as the myths and the gods started becoming more and more distant, humans felt a deep spiritual anguish that was soon to culminate in the greatest spiritual revolution that man has ever seen.

The Axial Age (c. 800 to 200 BCE)

The axial age is called so because it was a pivotal time in which the greatest philosophies of the ancient age, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Confucianism, Jainism etc all arose in the same time.

It was a response to the great spiritual chasm that man was feeling as we separated from nature. We still needed an understanding of our significance in the world. A reason for living. As city life progressed. we developed myths about gods who lived in cities like ours with divine order – a utopia in the havens. We dreamed of recreating such order here in the world.

The axial leaders turned the focus away from gods and heavens and asked men and women to focus on their own lives, thoughts and action. They told that we are responsible for our own actions and no gods guide out fates. They wanted to recreate a heavenly order on the human sphere and focused on strict codes of living, rituals and mores and codes of conduct. These were the first stirring of organized religion and myths started the conversion to religion.

The Post-Axial Period (c. 200 BCE to c. 1500 CE)

Men started codifying the laws of religions and laws of life and converted myths into beliefs. they turned from symbols giving us guidance on how to live to concrete facts and gods that tell us how to live in exact terms. We converted historical figures like Jesus into archetypal myths and imbued them with divine characteristics and tried to come to terms with the lack of guidance.

This was also the time when the early Greeks started their exploration of Logos or logic. They encouraged us to reject the unverifiable and the intuitive and to choose Logos over Mythos, leading humankind inevitably on to the next major change in human history

The Modern Age (c. 1500 to 2000)

Logos finally won over Mythos and we used our logic and our understanding to gain unprecedented control over our environment and our own lives. But while we progressed materially, we seem to have regressed spiritually. the respect and reverence for nature, to our fellow creatures and to each other turned into an attitude of exploitation and self-serving that led to great catastrophes like the world wars and mass massacres. We now are gradually realizing that perhaps we need to get back to the myths and the old stories to help us make sense of our lives and to get back an appreciation of nature and of life, to learn to live together without destroying each other and our planet.

For that we need to let Mythos come back from the corner it was beaten into by our all-pervading Logos.

The real message of the book comes out in this section. It deals with the modern societies obsession with Logos over Mythos and its rejection of these fundamentally psychological coping mechanisms that are myths, the primal stories that give us a sense of place in this otherwise meaningless existence. Apparently that is one of the fundamental requirements of the human condition.

This last section of the book is about how myth survives in today’s world. Armstrong says that it is now the duty of the artists and the writers to carry on the tradition of mythology, which is he only tool we mankind has ever developed that helps us cope with ourselves. She also goes into great detail to give examples of modern works that are built on myths such as Ulysses and The Waste Land.

“We have seen that a myth could never be approached in a purely profane setting. It was only comprehensible in a liturgical context that set it apart from everyday life; it must be experienced as part of a process of personal transformation. None of this, surely, applies to the novel, which can be read anywhere at all without ritual trappings, and must, if it is any good, eschew the overtly didactic. Yet the experience of reading a novel has certain qualities that remind us of the traditional apprehension of mythology. It can be seen as a form of meditation. Readers have to live with a novel for days or even weeks. It projects them into another world, parallel to but apart from their ordinary lives. They know perfectly well that this fictional realm is not real and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling. A powerful novel becomes part of the backdrop of our lives, long after we have laid the book aside. It is an exercise of make-believe that, like yoga or a religious festival, breaks down barriers of space and time and extends our sympathies, so that we are able to empathize with other lives and sorrows. It teaches compassion, the ability to feel with others. And, like mythology, an important novel is transformative. If we allow it to do so, it can change us forever.”

The agenda at this point becomes very clear and the book’s denouement is clearly an invocation towards asking novelists to take up old myths and use them and reexamine them; this of course leads smoothly on to the fact that the book is an introduction to the Canongate Myth Series, which has commissioned a series of works from authors such as Margaret AtwoodPhilip Pullman and Victor Pelevin, each of which is designed to be a modern version of an ancient myth. I have to admit that this was my original motivation to pick up the book as I really wanted to read The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

Karen Armstrong does give a clear and well reasoned argument for the need for Myth in our daily life and in our art but does not really do justice to the title of the book.

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Posted by on February 27, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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