What is Good?

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Review of On Duties by Marcus Tullius Cicero, translated by Quintus Curtius.

The old windbag Cicero lived during a definitive, pivotal time in Western history – perhaps the moment, along with the American Revolution, that produced our world – but you wouldn’t have wanted to live then unless you have a fondness for starving and being chopped up.  The Roman republic was on the ropes with two cut eyes and early signs of Parkinson’s, and Julius Caesar and others sought to deliver the knockout blow in order to establish a totalitarian empire in its place.  Cicero, a lawyer and famed orator, favored the old republic.  Sometimes exhiled and eventually killed, he is best know today for Read More

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The Meaning of Life

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Book review of Stoner, by John Williams.

Kant said, beauty is that for which we have no concept.  We can look at it, admire it, and feel that certain qualia that comes from beauty, but if we attempt to explain it in mere words we fail because words can only express concepts.  Such beauty might come from a moment of perfection in music or from the composition of a great work of art.

In this spirit, it is impossible to properly describe the qualities of Stoner.  It tells the story of a very ordinary man and his life which is, on the surface, insignificant.  He is born into rural poverty, attends university and becomes an academic.  He has some joys, tragedies, suffering and some minor triumphs along the way.  These are of a sort that any person might experience.  In the end, he Read More

Sympathy for the Devil

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Book review of Paradise Lost by John Milton

 

Been cast into Hell for eternity?  Look on the bright side.  That’s what he does:

Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell

Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings

A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.

The mind is its own place, and in it self

Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n . . .

Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

Whose side are you on, Milton?  You seem to have framed the Devil as an admirable Stoic.  Of course Milton has to pretend to side with insipid, old God and his goody-two-shoes son, Jesus, but the scenes of those two sedatives chin-wagging are about as compelling as the dinner table conversation at the Flanders’ house.  We can disregard the boring bits.  Paradise Lost is an epic poem in iambic pentameter about literature’s most fascinating and maligned character, the one who dared to stand against God himself.  He may have a bad reputation but the Devil seduces from us our curiousity.

Milton opens his verse in the midst of the drama, with Satan having been Read More

Morality is for Wimps

Book Review: Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One (Penguin Classics) by Friedrich Nietzsche.

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Have you ever met one of those blokes? You know the type. You’re in a quiet pub – maybe you’re waiting for the trains to be less crowded, or perhaps you’re an alcoholic. There’s only one drinker there and he says hello. You start talking.

This fellow, there’s usually something silly about his hair. Maybe it’s long and he’s way too old for it. Perhaps a giant beard. But you get talking to him and you find that you’ve discovered a soul mate. One of those very rare people who actually thinks how you think, even those unpopular things that are verboten on both left and right. Indeed, he says those things before you do. There’s no one eavesdropping.  It’s just the two of you. You both chuckle conspiratorially and say, ‘No one else can see it, can they? Normal people don’t want to accept the truth. We’re not normal though, are we? We’re the effing Illuminati, we are. But keep it under your hat, of course. Most people aren’t ready for this stuff and they never will be.’

Actually, I’ve never had an experience like that. I could imagine it happening though. That’s what reading Nietzsche is like. On almost every page I inwardly scream, ‘Of course! That’s right! It’s so bloody obvious but no one dares admit it!’ And yet Read More

Strength and Weakness

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Book Review of Wolf Totem, by Jiang Rong.

Each generation grows a little weaker and more pathetic than the one before.  You probably can’t fix a car as well as your father did, while your grandfather repaired jeeps under fire in WWII.  Your great grandfather – well, he didn’t even enjoy the luxury of mechanization.  He slumped across muddy no-man’s-land on foot in a pair of rotting boots he stole from a rotting Gerry.  And your great, great grandfather?  He tamed unmapped continents, cleared the land and obliterated entire peoples.

Look at your children (or the children of others, if you don’t have any).  Whining about Read More