Sunday, December 4, 2011

Garry Wills, Rome & Rhetoric: Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

Garry Wills has struck again, this time with his book Rome and Rhetoric: Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. In this slender volume Wills explores how Shakespeare, via Plutarch, grasped the essence of Rome at the time of the transition from republic to empire. Specifically, Wills explores the rhetoric of the leading characters. Of course, Antony's funeral oration is the best known of the set pieces in this play. (My continued apologies to Mrs. Vaughn for having complained about having to memorize this in sophomore English class). However, Antony's funeral oration is not the only example of rhetoric in the play. Before Antony speaks, Brutus addressed the crowd. Wills contrasts the rhetoric of Brutus, which centers upon "mine honor", against the more nuanced speech given by Antony. Antony responds to his audience, whereas Brutus expects his audience to respond to him.

Wills's love of Shakespeare is not new. His previous book on Macbeth demonstrates the care with which has explicates these texts. In addition, he has recently published a book on Shakespeare and Verdi, the great Italian opera composer who composed operas on some of Shakespeare's plays. I haven't read that book yet, but I have a hard time imagining that it could be better than this book. Wills is trained as a classicist and the opportunity to merge his love of theater (and Shakespeare in particular), along with his classical learning, provides us a real treat in humanistic learning.

I always enjoyed Julius Caesar (my complaints and sophomore English notwithstanding), and I think that it is an easily accessible play. In addition, there are a couple of good film productions of it that are well worth seeing, including one with Marlon Brando as Anthony. If you have an opportunity to see these productions or to read this play, Wills's book out would be an excellent introduction and perspective on the play.

Niall Ferguson on the Western Canon & Sequay to the Next Post

From Ferguson's Civilization: The West & the Rest:

What makes a civilization real to its inhabitants, in the end, is not just splendid edifices at its center, nor even the smooth functioning of the institutions they house. At its core, a civilization is the texts that are taught in schools, learned by its students and recollected in times of tribulation. The civilization of China was once built on the teachings of Confucius. The civilization of Islam -- of the cult of submission -- is still built on the Koran. But what are the foundational texts of Western civilization, that can bolster our belief in the almost boundless power of the free individual human being?

I would suggest the King James Bible, Isaac Newton's Principia, John Locke's Two Treatises of Government, Adam Smith's Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations, Edmund Burke's Recollections of the Revolution in France and Charles Darwin's Origin of Species -- to which should be added to William Shakespeare's's plays selected speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. If I had to select a single volume as Koran, it would be Shakespeare's complete works.

Id. 324.

As you will learn from my next post, the admiration of Shakespeare as the author at the heart of the Western tradition--at least since the Renaissance--is not unusual.

What other books, since the advent of modernity, might Ferguson have cited?

David Brooks: The Social Animal

David Brooks is a socialist.

Okay, he’s not a socialist in the sense that you and I might think of as socialist. In fact, David Brooks has never made such a statement about himself that I know of. However in his book, The Social Animal, he describes his alter ego as a socialist. However, his alter ego is the strangest and perhaps most unique socialist that you've ever heard of. The kind of socialist that Brooks is speaking about is not of the Marxist-Leninist variety, nor of the Maoist variety, or of any other off-the-shelf varieties. Instead, his alter ego is what most of us would think of it as a well, an Aristotelian, or a Burkean, or, in more contemporary terms, a communitarian. In other words, Brooks thinks that most folks who describe themselves as socialists today are in fact statists.

The above gives you a sense politically of where Brooks is coming from, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has read his columns in the New York Times regularly. The Brooks alter ego in The Social Animal is someone who admires the politics of Hamilton, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. He believes that the state should be useful and is necessary, but is should not be dominant. He stands between free-market libertarians and the statists (i.e., whom everyone else thinks of it as socialists).

I listened to The Social Animal with a great deal of enjoyment. Brooks brings valuable perspectives to this book. First, Brooks is a keen observer of contemporary social mores. He can be satirical, but always with a light and humorous touch. Secondly, he’s deeply taken with the neuro-psychological revolution that is ongoing. Only a small portion of the book is really dedicated to Brooks pithy observations about the society around us, and more of it is centered on what we have learned about humans as social animals. Of course, this perspective is as old as men and women have been thinking about society. Names like Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Locke, Burke, and Toqueville pop to mind. Brooks brings contemporary scientific (especially brain) research and contemporary social science research to the table. Brooks does this by using the conceit borrowed from Rousseau’s Emile, wherein the education (not just schooling) of individuals serves as a vehicle to expostulate about his perspectives on learning and behavior. (I think it's safe to say Brooks would be very critical of Rousseau's political thinking.)

I enjoyed this book very much. It was fun to listen to. Brooks did well to choose the stories of individuals to draw us into a narrative that provides doses of contemporary scientific thinking that become relevant and easily palatable. Of course, I have to also have to say that I'm easily sold on this book because I agree with most of his perspectives. If anyone has read this blog before, they know that I often have cited my agreements with Brooks. While I don't consider myself as politically conservative as he considers himself, I think the differences are those of shades and not of absolutes. I, too, admire the tradition of Hamilton, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. However, I do believe that the contribution of FDR is one is crucial for modern America. Indeed, the second Roosevelt's political program and economic program is vital to our well-being and extremely relevant today. Obama probably could not find a better role model than Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Theodore lived in an earlier, less industrialized age. We need the likes of FDR and Keynes more than ever.

In the end, a highly enjoyable and recommend a book