Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century by Brad DeLong (and a Big Change)

 Big Announcement! (Sort of): I'm moving my blogging to Substack. This review & my review immediately preceding that--plus any occasional essays or whatever--will be posted on Substack. You can find me here. I'll keep this site open, but soon I won't post anything here. And, although I didn't necessarily intend it, everything (so far as I can tell) that I've ever posted there is now on my Substack feed. But for old-time's sake, here's my review of Brad DeLong's Slouching Towards Utopia. Enjoy here now; then subscribe at Substack. 

Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century

By J. Bradford DeLong

This book provides a comprehensive narrative of a “long twentieth century” (1870-2010) that further informed my thinking about this era. An outstanding work of narrative history should work like a strong magnet among iron filings, pulling diverse pieces (facts) into a coherent pattern without distorting the given shape (reality) of those diverse pieces. And this is what DeLong has accomplished in this work. He draws together into a discernible pattern (to wit, a story) about the intersection of unprecedented economic realities (improvements, mostly) and their effect on national and international politics, and how various thinkers and political leaders responded to these new realities.

Back (well, way back) in the day when I was a political science and history major, I learned a lot about nineteenth and twentieth-century history from some fine professors and reading prominent historians writing about this era. But I realize now that economic history as a sub-discipline and political-economy as a whole were mostly overlooked. The economics of this period of extraordinary economic development and innovation was more or less taken for granted as the backdrop for the political and social history that dominated my curriculum. Until now, has there been a book that has filled this void? If so, I missed it. Columbia historian Adam Tooze has addressed several big chunks of this period quite admirably, but again, no one that I’ve read provides such an informed, comprehensive narrative of the economic and political-economic history of this era.
Another merit of this book comes from a point that DeLong makes about himself; that is, he considers himself both an economist and a historian. I assumed his merits as an economist; he’s worked in the Treasury Department and as a professor of economics at Berkley. And at the beginning of the book, there are facts and figures about economic development over the course of human history and about how economic development skyrocketed beginning about 1870 with the advent of business corporations, modern research labs, and cheaper, more efficient transportation and communication systems. But on the whole, the book is surprisingly light on figures, tables, charts, and formulas; you know, the stuff you’d expect to see from an economist. The flip side (the historian side, if you will) of this is DeLong’s narrative skill in recounting the course of events and thinking of this period. DeLong’s prose has a light touch that avoids economics jargon and avoids falling into ponderous academic prose. Indeed, DeLong’s prose includes a certain playfulness, such as his repeated touch phrase “the market giveth, the market taketh away, blessed be the name of the market.” Another instance of this light touch is his seemingly alternating designation of Hayek as both “genius” and “idiot” and as a Jekyll and Hyde. (Designations that seem spot-on from my perspective in the cheap seats. ) DeLong also frames much of his history as a yin and yang between Hayek’s market mania and Karl Polanyi’s emphasis on traditional rights and communities. And while these two deities of modern political-economic thought and their acolytes receive a lot of attention, John Maynard Keynes—the appropriate reverence seems to demand the full name—presides like Zeus or Thor over these two lesser gods. And as the high-god, Keynes seeks to impose order on the economic universe in the course of a continuing struggle against economic chaos left in the wake of the lesser gods (including old Marx). DeLong describes Keynes as brokering a marriage of the insights of Hayek and Polyani. If it’s a marriage that could be made to last, it will no doubt remain fruitful, but in these times, nothing seems stable. And, I should note that not only has DeLong confirmed by priors about Hayek (and the market in general), he has also confirmed my priors about Keynes as one of the great figures of the twentieth century. (My assessment was established after reading Zachery Carter’s work on Keynes, The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes (2020).)

I want to also note that I’m impressed with DeLong the historian. Not only does he write an engaging and informed narrative, but he also displays insights into the nature of the historical enterprise. For instance, toward the end of the book, while discussing the Great Recession of 2008, he compares his take with that of Adam Tooze in Tooze’s book, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (2018). DeLong considers how events in that era (as an example) balance between contingency and necessity; choice and structure. Tooze is more a proponent of structure and necessity; DeLong of contingency and choice. DeLong, however, concedes that future historians may come down closer to Team Structure-Necessity. Perhaps, but then we always wonder, don’t we: what if the Archduke had not been assassinated?

I could go on further at great length about the contents of this book, perhaps in a later essay. But I might find such an exercise futile and genuinely counter-productive. I can’t write as authoritatively or with as much felicity as DeLong about these events. Ergo, you should go immediately to his book and read it. I’m confident that you’ll find it well worth your time and enjoyably spent.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age by Robert D. Kaplan

Kaplan's most personal & reflective book

I’ve read many of Robert D. Kaplan’s books, and he’s not an easy writer pigeonhole. Is he a travel writer, or a journalist, or an historian, or a geopolitical strategist, or a literary critic, or a memoirist? In different books—and sometimes all in one book—he qualifies for all of these designations. In fact, in Adriatic, we find Kaplan at his most diverse and his most personal. 

The bones of the book come from a journey (in segments) that Kaplan made that began in Rimini, Italy, and then moved onto Ravenna, Venice, and Trieste (all in Italy), then through Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania, culminating on the Greek island of Corfu. The common theme is the ties of these cities and nations—these lands—with the Adriatic Sea; and, in a larger sense, with the Mediterranean and the diverse civilizations and regimes that have existed in proximity to the Mediterranean. Around the Adriatic, Rome, Byzantium, Venice, the Ottoman Empire, Yugoslavia, and other nations and groups have all encountered one another, along with Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Islam. 

Part of the story involves commentary and analysis from another author known as a journalist and geopolitical strategist; lots of reports of conversations with locals—politicians and government officials, academics, historians, and other writers. As one might expect, one comes away with insights into the social, economic, and political situations that Kaplan observes in these lands. All of this is worth the price of admission, but Kaplan’s observations and reporting are not what drew me to read this book twice over. (In reviewing my highlights and notes to write this review, I realized that I gobbled down the book during my first reading, and I would be wise to savor it on a second reading. My hunch proved correct.) 

In fact, several more layers in the book take its value far beyond reporting about current events in each locale. To start with, Kaplan makes his trip into a literary tour. Even before the beginning of his account of his journey, we are introduced to quotes from Italo Calvino; beginning in Rimini, he discusses the work and reputation of Ezra Pound; in Ravenna, we are treated to Dante; in Venice, he discusses Thomas Mann (Death in Venice); in Trieste, James Joyce (where Joyce wrote The Dubliners and other works) and Joseph Brodsky; and eventually on down to Corfu, where he discusses the Nobel Prize-winning Greek poet George Seferis. And in addition to these (and other) literary lights, Kaplan mentions authors most often considered “travel writers." In Corfu, for instance, it’s Lawrence Durrell; in Venice, it’s James/Jan Morris and Mary McCarthy; in Trieste, it’s Sir Richard Francis Burton (the nineteenth-century adventurer and translator) and Claudio Magris; and in (the former) Yugoslavia he cites Rebecca West and her 1941 book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. These lists of authors are but a sampler. 

But there is another layer down in this book. For Kaplan is not a name-dropper; he’s a reader. His admiration for the authors and works that he discusses is frank (especially for historians and their histories). In fact, he rues his lack of training as a historian and linguist. But he denigrates his own experiences and reporting too much. True, those who haunt archives and who bring to life earlier ages do a great service for which they are rightly hailed. Their work brings history to life, not simply as so many tales from the past, but as a set of events and actions that reveal human intentions and projects in all their magnificent diversity. History provides crucial self-disclosure for the human race, by which we can develop the self-consciousness of our species. Kaplan, through his reading and writing, advances this project with a book like this even more than what he could do via a more formal work of history. 

Digging down another level, Kaplan reveals his own quest for self-knowledge and continuing self-criticism. While Kaplan rues that his formal education ended with an undergraduate degree, I fear that graduate school might have spoiled his taste for broad interests and first-hand knowledge. And, he proves himself a committed, life-long autodidact, which is the mark of any truly educated, cultivated person. Certainly, Kaplan has role models who are great writers who’ve not been hampered by their (relative) lack of formal education. (A favorite of Kaplan and mine is Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was kicked out of school as a young man and went on the write some of the finest English-language prose of the twentieth century, and who quoted Horace to a captive German general on Mt Aetna on Crete during WWII—a great story there.) Whether a historian, philosopher, travel writer, or journalist, to be at the top rank one must know when to adjust one’s focus, when to use the microscope and when to use the telescope as one searches for knowledge across a variety of landscapes. Kaplan does this quite well. (Another fine example of this ability is the late historian-essayist John Lukacs, whose focus could shift without blurring from the “Modern Age” to Five Days in London, May 1940.) 

The final aspect of this book is the deepest and perhaps the most rewarding. This is Kaplan writing a memoir, a confession. Kaplan notes that in writing this he was in his mid-60s, and he’d been to many of these locations before. (See his Mediterranean Winter (2004.) In this sense, this book is similar to his earlier In Europe's Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond (2016), which reviewer Timothy D. Snyder described as revealing

[T]he confident, poetical Kaplan, striving as ever in his writing for the proverbial, but also a reflective, political Kaplan, seeking at times to submerge his gift for romantic generalization in respectful attention to the ideas of others. That tension — between an aesthetic sense of wholeness and the intellectual acceptance of complexity — is the real subject of the book, both as autobiography and as geopolitics. 

So, this book: it’s as much a memoir and autobiography as it is a book of travel and political analysis. As in the earlier book, Kaplan chastises himself for his earlier support of the Iraq War, having (mistakenly) thought that it would entail the overthrow of a dictatorship along the lines of the 1989 fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. But he doesn’t dwell on this mistake or the controversy surrounding his earlier book in the Balkans (Balkan Ghosts (1993) that influenced the Clinton administration, making the President reluctant to become actively involved in stopping the Serbian genocide. (There, Kaplan was an early proponent of intervention, notwithstanding any impression taken from Balkan Ghosts by others.) 

But again, I have to emphasize that Kaplan pulls the camera out further, for a wider focus, for a wider reflection upon himself. A sampling: 

The real adventure of travel is intellectual, because the most profound journeys are interior in nature. (Location 89)
. . . . 
[I]t is the books you have read, as much as the people you have met, that constitute autobiography. (Location 95)
. . . .
Because travel is a journey of the mind, the scope of the journey is limitless, encompassing all manner of introspection and concerned with the great debates and issues of our age. (Location 96)
. . . . 
Travel is psychoanalysis that starts in a specific moment of time and space. And everything about that moment is both unique and sacred—everything. (Location 99)
. . . . 
Originality emanates from solitude: from letting your thoughts wander in alien terrain. I boarded a ferry from Pescara to Split a half century ago to feel alive thus. For this reason I am alone now in a church in Rimini in winter. The lonelier the setting, the crueler the weather, the greater the possibilities for beauty, I tell myself. Great poetry is not purple; it is severe. (Location 106)
. . . . 
The mystery of travel involves the layers revealed about yourself as you devour such knowledge. Thus, travel must lead to self-doubt. And I am full of doubts. (Location 113)

[A]s I matured and became more interested in abstract matters rather than in atmospherics—in Confucian philosophy itself rather than in merely the setting for it, in the geopolitics of Italian city-states rather than in the art they produced—[Ezra] Pound’s evocative allusions to such matters, idiosyncratic as they might be, arguably nutty and crackpot for significant stretches, kept me from altogether deserting him. (Location 347)
. . . . 
Travel leads to books, and good books lead you to other good books. And thus, I have become an obsessive reader of bibliographies. (Location 385)
. . . .
The more I learned, the more aware I became of my own ignorance and autodidacticism. Only in late middle age would I become intellectually comfortable in my own skin, confident that the truest and most revealing insights sometimes involve seeing what was right in front of your eyes as you traveled. The future, I have learned, is often prepared by what cannot be mentioned or admitted to in fine company. The future lies inside the silences. (Location 535)
. . . . 
The train is the perfect place to think and read. (Location 602)
. . . .
Even just one day of travel constitutes a moment of lucidity that breaks through the grinding gears of daily habit, so that it becomes a bit more difficult to lie to oneself. I travel in order not to be deceived. Camus writes, “I realized…that a man who’d only lived for a day could easily live for a hundred years in a prison. He’d have enough memories not to get bored.” Very overstated perhaps, but not if that one day was a day of travel. (Location 603)
. . . 
[B]ecause there is no redemption, there is only confession. (Location 629) 
Such a person, such a writer, who strives for such a degree of self-knowledge, self-understanding, who recollects opportunities realized and lost, and who engages in a such on ongoing project of genuine education--of drawing out one's self, as does Kaplan--deserves our admiration for giving voice to so much that we may pass over or have missed in ourselves. 

I hope that this gives you a sample of the many layers of this book and the reason why Kaplan would worry about how this book might be categorized in a book store! It’s many books, many styles, all in one book. It’s a terrific read; a travelogue for the mind; a reflection on many times and places. 

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from Within on Modern Democracy by Tom Nichols

Should have received more publicity on publication


The end of democracy will come not with mobs burning the Capitol, or food riots, or juntas of national salvation, or demagogues leading the peasants to burn the castles of the rich. It will end, instead, with highly educated, technically proficient, otherwise decent men and women with families and children and mortgages and car payments who will decide that uninformed, spoiled, irascible voters simply can’t produce coherent demands other than “just get it for us,” and they will act accordingly.

This will not happen after a revolution, or a disaster, or a landmark court case—or even after a pandemic. It will happen as part of a million small decisions made every day without the input of the common citizen, as the fulfillment of an unspoken agreement between technocratic elites and the working and middle classes. Rights and participation and transparency will be shelved—as they too often were during the Cold War in the name of national security—as luxuries simply too expensive to indulge. The population will not be impoverished proles, but reasonably educated, comfortable people who have decided that “democracy” means a certain standard of living.

Nichols, Thomas M., Our Own Worst Enemy (pp. 214-215). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

As we Americans attempt to deal with the crisis of our democracy, we are blessed to have many capable individuals addressing our plight. In no particular order: Anne Applebaum, David Frum, Thomas Edsall, Francis Fukuyama, Yousha Mounk, Max Boot, Tim Miller (and others in The Bulwark crowd), Steve McIntosh, George Packer, and others whose names escape me for the moment. Suffice it to say that there are many continuing efforts to better understand our plight. 

And, oh, yes, there’s Tom Nichols. Like Applebaum and Frum, Nichols also writes for The Atlantic. And like Frum and Applebaum and several of the others, Nichols published a book about this topic in 2017, The Death of Expertise. I haven’t read that book, but I became familiar with Nichols around that time and have followed his work since then. This includes frequent contributions to The Atlantic and podcast interviews with Charlie Sykes on the Bulwark podcast. And, to my surprise, I learned that Nichols had published a book in August 2021, Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from Within on Modern Democracy (OUP).  In fact, there’s a bit of an embarrassing story about how I discovered this book, which I detail at the end here.* Suffice it to say that while a year late to the party, I’m glad that I finally arrived. In fact, it may prove to be the best “party” that I’ve attended about this topic. 

Nichols's argument is straightforward: the greatest problems facing the U.S. and other established democracies come from within, not from abroad. The electorate in the U.S. (and I’ll focus on the U.S., as Nichols does) has been chronically unhappy with elites and the course of the nation. Why is this so? Our situation (at least our material situation) is really pretty good, notwithstanding the challenging events of the first fifth of the twenty-first century: the 9/11 attacks and related events of radical Islamic terrorism; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the crash of 2008; mounting domestic terrorism; the COVID-19 pandemic and the related economic crash—all these events were indeed traumatic and cost precious lives and huge amounts of treasure. But for most Americans living in August 2022, life is nevertheless quite good. Again, not to minimize the pain and death associated with the events listed (and others), but Nichols (and I) agree with former Presidents Obama’s statement that there’s never been a better time to be alive. One must acknowledge that our material well-being, as measured by the amount of stuff we have and the quality of life that we can enjoy, is beyond the dreams of even the wealthiest who lived as recently as less than a century ago.

So, what's eating at us? Nichols summarizes his answer in three words: “narcissism, anger, and resentment.”

In pursuing this line of thought, Nichols distinguishes himself from others who’ve attempted to diagnose our malaise, including popular opinion. Nichols acknowledges that elites have indeed made mistakes, but then they always do, and the magnitude of those mistakes doesn’t justify the magnitude of the malaise claimed by so many.

To arrive at his diagnosis, Nichols, instead of using a searchlight, uses a mirror. 

Among the unholy triumvirate of narcissism, anger, and resentment, the anger (and resulting grievance) aspect has received the most attention from many commentators. This line of thought goes a long way in explaining the reactions of those who've suffered direct hits to their well-being by way of job losses and declining communities. Many of these losses are rightly attributable to jobs going overseas and to automation (the latter, I think, being the more significant problem regarding jobs). But the number of Trumpists and sympathizers who have suffered these severe losses is rather small. A full explanation of the approximately 40% of the U.S. electorate who vote for Trumpists requires a deeper, more sweeping explanation. 

Of course, anyone who knows much about American politics knows that most citizens, including most voters, are shockingly ill-informed about candidates, policies, and how our political institutions function. It’s a fool’s errand to place an articulated, rational set of reasons for the outcome of any election. It’s most often like trying to draw a detailed picture using just black and white (Yes or No? Candidate A or B?) and beginning the picture from a Rorschach ink blob. Nichols illustrates the problems with a couple of tales from my native Iowa: 

The Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce, for example, spoke to a woman who caucused for Sanders in 2016 and then voted for Trump. In 2020, she initially settled on Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, as her choice. If Buttigieg didn’t win the nomination, however, she would move from the young, progressive, gay, once-married Buttigieg back to the elderly, right-wing, serially adulterous, thrice-married bigot Trump—a kaleidoscopic change in preferences that only makes sense as a search for a tailored set of narrow promises that would meet her personal satisfaction, rather than the selection of a candidate who must govern across a range of issues. Location 1306)

. . . . 

Another Iowan told the media that she had voted both for Barack Obama and for Donald Trump, “just to shake up Washington, to be honest.” (This is sometimes called the “OOT” voter, the person who voted Obama-Obama-Trump in 2008, 2012, and 2016, respectively.) Had Trump not been available in 2016, she said, she might have gone for—of course—Bernie Sanders. “We’ve just been in a rut so long,” she sighed. (Location 1311)

Even as a native and resident of Iowa most of my life (and as a long-time observer of its politics), this makes my head spin. I migrated from Booker to Buttigieg to Biden (I do like those Bs, I guess), but jump to Trump? How can any mind make that leap? But then it wasn’t the mind so much as the emotions that motivated these voters. 

Narcissism and resentment (and its manifestation on steroids, ressentiment—thank you, Nietzsche) both reach beyond the surface rationalizations and reasons to reveal the motivating emotional core. I suspect that social scientists tend to shy away from such broad and amorphous concepts that can’t be easily quantified, but happily, Nichols (a Ph.D. in political science and retired college professor) doesn’t shy away from these depths. 

In his discussion of narcissism, Nichols draws on the work of American historian and social critic Christopher Lasch. Lasch was active roughly from the 1960s until his death in 1994, and he’s perhaps most remembered for his 1970 work, The Culture of Narcissism. Nichols cites this work and others in his review of contemporary manifestations of narcissism. One wonders what Lasch would make of our situation today. (N.B. Nichols, like me and others, believes Lasch went too far in his criticisms near the end of his career.) Related to narcissism, Nichols draws on the work of political scientist Edward Banfield to note that when the chips are down, individuals often hunker down into the confines of family rather than seeking out and pursuing the common good. Banfield saw this phenomenon demonstrated in a poor Italian village in the 1950s; Nichols sees this increasingly in contemporary America. Nichols quotes Hannah Arendt to capture the implications of the two different potentials exhibited here: 

The idiot is one who lives only in his own household and is concerned only with his own life and its necessities. The truly free state, then—one that not only respects certain liberties but is genuinely free—is a state in which no one is, in this sense, an idiot: that is, a state in which everyone takes part in one way or another in what is common. (Location 974)

But while there’s plenty of evidence in support of the anger-grievance and narcissism aspect of our current malaise, it’s the resentment aspect that may manifest the most potent motivating and explanatory power to our current malaise. Let me introduce this topic with an extended quote from Nichols: 

Resentment in politics is the externalization of envy. If there is one thing authoritarian governments do especially well, it is the way in which they mobilize resentment as a weapon. Democracy, on principle, is based on the public’s acceptance of regular cycles in which winners and losers exchange places, sometimes unexpectedly. Authoritarians, by contrast, promise stability and equality. They offer placidity by promising, without favor or exception, to make losers of everyone outside of the ruling group. By reducing all citizens to the same miserable condition, they build a constituency among those who are willing to endure oppression as long as the people they hate have to endure it as well. Resentment is about leveling rather than leadership, about vengeance rather than virtue.

(Location 1733)

. . . . 

Resentment, like narcissism, undermines the civic virtues of tolerance, cooperation, and equal justice, because it fuels demands for rewards and punishments based on jealousy and unhappiness rather than reason or impartial justice.

(Location 1739)

And if you thought that mere garden variety resentment seems quite enough to invade and perhaps destroy the garden of democracy, then there’s resentment on steroids: ressentiment.

Again, Nichols provides an informative overview:

There is a more evocative word, ressentiment (imported from French by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche), that captures this vague but powerful envy of others. Mere “envy” or “resentment” isn’t enough to express the lasting toxicity of ressentiment. As the writer Joseph Epstein has explained, ordinary resentment is a “quick, stabbing thing, set off by an act of ingratitude or injustice, but that can, fairly quickly, melt away.” But ressentiment is of greater endurance, has a way of insinuating itself into personality, becoming a permanent part of one’s character. Ressentiment, then, is a state of mind, one that leaves those it possesses with a general feeling of grudgingness toward life. . . . So much so that those suffering ressentiment come almost to enjoy the occasions for criticism that their outlook allows them.

(Location 1741)

. . . . 

...philosopher Ian Buchanan describes ressentiment as a “vengeful, petty-minded state of being that does not so much want what others have (although that is partly it) as want others to not have what they have.”

(Location 1754)

. . . . the words of the German philosopher Max Scheler, it is existential envy “directed against the other person’s very nature,” and thus unresolvable: “I can forgive everything, but not that you are—that you are what you are—that I am not what you are—indeed that I am not you.”

(Location 1758)

And if the citations to Nietzsche, Epstein, Buchanan, and Scheler seem too highbrow, here Nichols provides the comment of an American voter as an exemplar: 

[A]more prosaic example of this kind of resentment in modern America is the voter in Florida who was furloughed from her public sector job during a 2019 budget impasse between the White House and Congress. Initially a supporter of President Trump, she turned on her candidate in helpless anger. “I voted for him, and he’s the one who’s doing this,” she said. “I thought he was going to do good things. He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting” (emphasis added).

(Location 1801)

After addressing the issue of resentment, Nichols touches on nostalgia, the tendency to idealize and attempt to recover an imagined past. The answer to malaise becomes time-travel; escape to the past when things were “better.” But time travel isn’t an option, time’s arrow flies only in one direction. And even if some aspects of the past were in some measure “better,” they can only be re-created, not re-captured. 

Nichols also notes that democracy and liberalism often prove boring. There’s no Le Mis celebrating the endless wrangling of a congress, legislature, or city council. The flag waving and drama of January 6 proved dramatic, even cinematic, but was not democracy, not the rule of law, and not a future that any sane person would want. Again, reason takes a backseat to the emotional engines that prompt some form of salvation through mindless acts expressing inarticulate dissatisfaction with the status quo. (Fascism, anyone?)

This work of Nichols is the most convincing, comprehensive assessment of our current democratic dis-ease that I’ve read to date (although there are many works out there on this topic that I haven’t yet gotten to). Nichols has the analytical mind of a political scientist that he combines with a keen, appreciative eye for the contemporary American scene. He reports coming from a modest background, and while he’s critical of his fellow Americans, he’s not dismissive or despairing of them. He wants us, our nation, to succeed, but he realizes the realities of our (largely) self-imposed self-destructive traits. Nichols has no magic wand, no simple answers; I imagine he hopes, like an experienced physician, that the first step forward in alleviating the malady is to properly identify it. 

There are many aspects of the book that I haven’t addressed here, and there are some avenues that I would like to have seen Nichols explore (for instance, the work of Rene Girard, whose insights about rivalry, memetic desire, envy, jealousy, resentment, and scapegoating, seem to me to be likely quite applicable who what Nichols is exploring. (But in fairness, I’ve only dipped into Girard to date, although I’m planning a deep dive. But we can’t know everything all at once.) Perhaps it’s best to close with a couple of more brief quotes from Nichols: 

Can we regain this Athenian sense of honor, civic pride, love of community, self-sacrifice, and deep confidence in our way of life? Or are these virtues now to be lost in a dark sea of grievance, resentment, and envy? (Location 3414)
. . . .  
“It cannot come from abroad,” Lincoln warned. “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” (Location 3425)


*And now for my big faux pas: Nichols posted a thread on resentment in contemporary American politics. I "liked" the threat and suggested that he write up his perspective in an Atlantic article. His reply:  "(said much more in a book)" My humble pie response to that revelation was "My bad! I've now obtained a copy of OUR OWN WORST ENEMY & will seek to rectify my ignorance. Appreciate very much your commentary & analysis." I hope that this review has in some manner rectified my having missed the boat earlier!

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Faith & Reason: Essays in the philosophy of religion by R.G. Collingwood. Edited with an introduction by Lionel Rubinoff


Early Collingwood on religion & philosophy

The essays in this book focus on pieces written by Collingwood early in his career. It borrows extensively from his first two books, Religion and Philosophy (1916) and Speculum Mentis (1924). The essays included were also written during this time period.
Rather than attempt an exposition of Collingwood’s thoughts manifest in this collection, I’ll simply proffer some observations. Having completed this collection, I’m now diving into Religion and Philosophy, which is the only work of philosophy by Collingwood that I haven’t yet read. My excuse for my tardiness is that it was an early work that commentators have generally slighted. However, my first observation is that it presages many of the themes that Collingwood will go on to explore in greater depth throughout his career. The several portions of Religion & Philosophy included in this collection reveal Collingwood’s concern with “forms of consciousness;” the mind as its activity; the importance of thought; distinctions between disciplines (art, religion, natural science, and history); and the relation of those disciplines to philosophy. We are also introduced to Collingwood addressing idealism and “the Absolute” more directly than what I recall in his later works. (“Realism,” on the other hand, while mentioned in these snippets from Religion and Philosophy and Speculum Mentis, gets a more consistent (critical) treatment throughout his career.)

Now for some more random observations and questions.

  1. Collingwood reveals a significant depth of knowledge and appreciation of Christian theology in his writings. How much of this did he receive at Oxford in classes and seminars, and how much of it came from his reading on his own?
  2. In reading Collingwood, one obtains the sense that these matters are not strictly a matter of professional interest and curiosity. And from probably the best single introduction to Collingwood now available, Fred Inglis’s History Man, we know that young Collingwood made a deliberate entry (Baptism and Confirmation) into the Anglican fold while a student at Rugby. I suspect this religiosity drives his formidable intellect in addressing the issues of God, existence, Atonement, the Absolute, and other theological and philosophical terms he considers in these selections.
  3. Collingwood addresses philosophical idealism more directly here than in any work I’d read previously. In the late 1930s, Collingwood bristled at being labeled an idealist by Gilbert Ryle. (The accusation really riled up Collingwood.)
  4. Collingwood refers to “the Absolute” on various occasions in this collection of works. It seems to me that the Italians, Croce, Gentile, and De Ruggiero, display their greatest influence on Collingwood during this early period. So far as I can discern, talk of “the Absolute” as a working term fades from Collingwood’s vocabulary after the early 1920s.
  5. Collingwood’s reluctance to be caught up in dichotomies is revealed early in his career. Although it's not until Speculum Mentis that I think that he overtly references a dialectical method for this thinking, I find the seedlings of this attitude are on display here. Yet, while he avoids easy dichotomies, he also reveals his penchant for sharp distinctions. For instance, distinctions between thought and feeling; will and thought; art, religion, science, and history; and so on. Collingwood wields his logical scalpel to reveal distinctions, without intending to sunder relationships that constitute the reality he’s investigating. Collingwood uses anatomy to enhance our understanding of the more important physiology.

I will stop here, as I’ve already begun my plunge into Religion and Philosophy for a complete, careful reading. I intend to provide a more careful consideration of Collingwood’s ideas set forth in that book (and then, I think, back for a second reading and consideration of Speculum Mentis). Before closing, I should say that Rubinoff has done an important service by providing this introduction to Collingwood’s early work at the intersection of religion and philosophy. This collection and commentary enhances our appreciation of Collingwood’s life-long project, and it provides deep insights into philosophy, religion, and Christianity.