Friday, January 8, 2010

Brooks on Avatar

I've must say that I have a lot of sympathy with what Dave Brooks says here about "Avatar", James Cameron's new blockbuster. It does have a "white guys rule" sensibility, like its predecessors, such as "Dances With Wolves" (the film that I first thought of after having viewed "Avatar". Maybe its too much to have something more subtle in the problems & issues; bad guys maybe not quite so bad & good guys (and gals) not quite so good. Americans as a whole need to understand these issues with more nuance IMHO.

New Reading Project & New Infatuation

I'm now into a reading project centered on Late Antiquity. I didn't know the phrase existed until recently. Gibbon defined it as the era of the decline and fall of Rome; most know it as the Dark Ages. However, it seems that especially due to the researches and writing of Peter Brown, we now consider this era (c. 150-750) as Late Antiquity. I'll mention some of the titles that I've dipped into as a part of this project, but I think I may have a new author infatuation: Peter Brown. Commentators on this era all include Brown in their essential bibliographies, and a number mention his prose style. Well, I'm into his The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750 (1971), and the reputation seems well-deserved indeed. I'm thinking more and more of diving into his very highly regarded biography of St. Augustine, perhaps the key figure of Late Antiquity (at least in the West). Other good prospects waiting in line:

  1. Freeman, Charles, The
    Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason
  2. Dodds, E.R., Pagan & Christian in an Age of Anxiety
  3. Galsworthy, Adrian How Rome Fell
  4. O'Donnell, James, The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History
  5. More Brown


Niebuhr: Children of Light & Children of Darkness

I completed by first book of the year, Niebuhr's Children of Light & Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy & a Critique of Its Traditional Defense (1944, 190 p.). This was a re-read, but well worth it. I could fill a post with quotes from this wonderfully insightful book. However, as you should read it yourself, I'll limit myself. An example: "There is freedom in history . . . But there is no absolute freedom in history; for every choice is limited by the stuff which nature and previous history present to the hour of decision." (54). Think about that thought not just in the light of nations and national leaders, but in your personal life. I'm all for "thinking outside the box", "possibility thinking", and so on; worthwhile exercises because we can become tired and stale, but in the end, we do face existential limitations from nature and history—personal as well as social history.

Okay, I can't help myself, another quote: "The ideal of the individual self-sufficiency, so exalted in our liberal culture, is recognized in Christian thought as one form of the primal sin. For self-love, which is the root of all sin, takes two social forms. One of them is the domination of other life by the self. The second is the sin of isolation." (55). Or as the dear one says: "The Big Self. Self-centered and self-righteous." Yup, she's Niebuhr to the core. Niebuhr meanwhile harkens back to Augustine's libido dominandi, while we thought that libido was just about the BVH.

Niebuhr touches on subjects such as anti-trust law, feminism, defense of property, social contract theory, issues of race, ethnicity, and religion, among others, making the breadth of his insights quite remarkable. He maintains a middle-way that is not a mushy center, but a perspective that avoids the pitfalls of the extremes.

I'll quit (promise) with one last quote: "[I]f only the proponents of various political theories have some decent and humble recognition of the fact that their theories are always partly the rationalization of their interests. A conservative class which makes "free enterprise" the final good of the community, and a radical class which mistakes some proximate solution of the economic problem for the ultimate solution of every issue of life, are equally perilous to the peace of the community and the preservation of democracy." (148-149). I hope for more Niebuhr to come.