Friday, January 27, 2017

The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life by John A. List and Uri Gneezy

The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life by John A. List and Uri Gneezy, explores the new wave of economic thinking (by new I mean post-1990s). 

Before that, economics has been dominated by theory and a limited set experiments on university campuses.  List and Gneezy engage in pioneering research using field experiments, widening the range of the field, and in the process, exposing some of the factors that motivate the choices people make.

For most, the thrilling part of The Why Axis is that it disabuses us of the notion that economics is strictly about money. Indeed, economics is about the incentives the impel people to engage in some action or activity, or dissuade them from doing so; of course, money is a great incentive, but as this book shows, sometimes and in certain circumstances, it is not the best.

This book is fluidly written, clear, and the authors employ a refreshing sleeves rolled up, real life attitude to help solve some of our most thorny social problems.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Hermits: The Insights of Solitude by Peter France

Hermits: The Insights of Solitude by Peter France, takes a long, lingering look at religious and philosophical recluses through the ages. He picks examples that are, no doubt, close to his heart.  There are chapters on the Desert Fathers of early Christianity, the Startsy of Russia’s northern forests, Thoreau, Ramakrishna, Merton, and the poet Robert Lax, among others.

The central problem facing all these hermits is the tension between isolation and society.  Overall, these men chose to live alone not from misanthropy, but from an overriding sense that solitude is the only way to achieve direct access to G-d.  Yet, there is the other pull, toward society.  Often, ironically, people seek hermits; because of their purported purity, they have always been sought to give advice about matters they have no direct knowledge of: like marriage and child-rearing. Some hermits became so popular, they had to leave their huts and seek solitude in new locations!

France’s book is an approachable to a topic that really is close to the human experience: who does not seek solitude, while at the same time, yearns for company?  This is a dichotomy are the very heart of what we are. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876 by Roy Morris Jr

Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876 by Roy Morris Jr. tells the harrowing story of the 1876 presidential election.  Ironically occurring in the year of our centennial, this election is probably the only presidential election [?] with historical, documented proof of outright systemic fraud.

Morris shows how this election was essentially stolen from Tilden though a series of moves on the state and federal level.  Perhaps the most shameful outcome of this was that Hayes and his associates agreed to remove the last troops from South Carolina, formally ending Reconstruction (which was already on its last legs).  Now nothing prevented white domination of the south, and the formalization of Jim Crow laws.

This is an important books.  First, it shows how terrible fraud can occur even without an overtly conscious attempt to commit it (although much conscious fraud was initiated in 1876).  Fraud is sometimes stumbled into; a sobering though.  Second, in a bizarre sense this book is heartening,  If our republican institutions can survive an election like 1876, perhaps they are elastic enough to weather Trump.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Somewhere a Master: Hasidic Portraits and Legends

It would be easy and lazy to label Elie Wiesel’s Somewhere a Master: Hasidic Portraits and Legends as mere hagiography: simple stories of saintly man without human flaws.  But this collection of stories and tales belies hagiography.  

Wiesel takes these figures, brings them to life, and maintains their human complexity. Hasidic rebbes were public figures. They had followers and students. This came with a great cost.  The need for solitude and connection to G-d was strong, and often stymied because of their functions as rebbes.

Wiesel observes that nearly every master died in some state of despair.  Often, it is not clear why, but Wiesel seems to be telling us that these men, who gave so much to their people, lost things in life through their service; this brought some measure of despair at the end.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery

The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery, by Wendy Moore, follows the story of John Hunter (13 February 1728 – 16 October 1793) who is widely credited as laying the groundwork of the modern science of surgery.

Moore’s book is detailed, entertaining, and informative.  John Hunter was both inwardly driven, a self-made man who became Europe’s greatest surgeon through pluck, intelligence, and hard work and also at a crux in the history of science: empirical methods were beginning to supersede the ancient reliance on Galen and his theory of the humors.  Hunter dissected corpses, performed autopsies, used precise methods and practices and relied experience, not medical books; he applied scientific norms to surgery with great success.

In a sense this book is perhaps a bit too long.  Moore delves deeply into the times, and in the process, perhaps adds too much.  That said, this book is intriguing.  In our world, were we are often confronted by over determined fields hamstrung by methodology and held in the vice grip of bureaucracies – we cannot help but be nostalgic of Hunter's time and life, when men (and all were men) could use their talents, skills, and drive to get somewhere in the world - and to make a difference.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Too Good to be True: Memoir

Benjamin Anastas’ memoir Too Good to be True, should probably be required reading for every young person who wants to write and make a living at it.  Make a living is the operative term. Anastas appears to spare no little detail in this work, documenting his plunge as a writer, and along with it, the rest of his life.

Of course in such a book which chronicles decline and failure, there is no little amount of self-pitying. This is to be expected; some parts are difficult to read, but at the least the author maintains a voice that is at once true and unsparing.  Anastas is also very well aware of how he laid the ground work for his artistic, financial, and perhaps relationship fiascoes.

Most of all, this memoir shows just how dangerous it is to have high and inflexible expectations about writing.  In the end, talent may not be enough; work may not be enough; contacts may not be enough.  Persistence and fortitude, however, may get you through the disappointments. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

Hasidism as Mysticism: Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth-Century Hasidic Thought, by Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer

Hasidism as Mysticism: Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth-Century Hasidic Thought, by Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer, has a good book somewhere within it covers, but it takes difficult, often tedious exploration to extract it.  Granted this is an academic book, where some denseness is expected; yet even by this rubric, this work is extraordinary impenetrable.

Quietism is defined as “devotional contemplation and abandonment of the will as a form of religious mysticism.”  The author explains how this form of religious expression was part and parcel of Hasidism from its earliest days.  The first Hasidim, and their founder, the Besht, were "a group of decided spiritual (pneumatic) cast, which fashioned for itself a specific communal life-style built, not  around family units, but rather on meetings organized around prayer circles. As a matter of principle, this patterns served as the basis for the development of the classic Hasidic community.”

The author concedes that Hasidism stressed a this-worldly orientation, viewing such physical acts as eating and sex as holy, when performed with the right intention, but all quietism and spiritual retreat were hidden in the Hasidic agenda.  The "meeting and prayer circles" of the early days laid the seeds for Hasidic quietism.

Eventually the nullification of the ego, or the self, evolved into an Hasidic preoccupation, especially for the Maggid of Mezhirech and his followers.  The Maggid believed that “a person should not pray concerning matters of his needs.”  The Maggid was concerned with “the issue of the nullification of ‘the intellect’ and the nature of thought.”  By eradicating the ego, then “man may acquire a new intellect, a form of pure spiritual thought which is beyond time.” This kind of agenda, the author claims, is a “quietistic doctrine which equated human activity with Divine activity,” a classic definition of quietism.

The Maggid believed that only “spiritual prayer” had real meaning.  Therefore “a person cannot find the way from his own concrete personality to G-d save by way of the spirit, for it is there that G-d is revealed to him…”  The authors goes on explaining that “the Maggid advocated a spiritual life removed from the world” where “the power of the spirit [negates] the feeling of physical existence.

The thesis of this book is rather straightforward, as you can read from the above quotes.  But the tangled structure and language of this book makes it nearly unreadable.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar by Ira F. Stone

A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar by Ira F. Stone, is generally disappointing.  Mussar is a system or program of Jewish ethics and behavior developed, mainly, by Lithuanian Jews in the nineteenth century.

Stone’s work revolves around the writings of Rabbi Simcha Zissel (died 1898) who Stone quotes quoting a passage from Mishnah Avot: “Our Sages taught: one of the methods by which the Torah is acquired is by bearing the burden with our fellows.”  Bearing the burden with our fellows, and variations on this phrase, is the axis of Stone’s book.

I’d like to say that this focal point gives the reader some traction, as Stone explores the ramifications of this phrase and what it means for our lif life and behavior.  But Stone, despite exploring these words in different contents, offers a very dry and uninspiring prose.  The author gets lost in over analysis, high concepts, and dullness.

So, sharing the burden with our fellows sounds like a very unpleasant thing from my read of Stone’s version of mussar.  It makes me want to avoid my fellows.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Short Method of Prayer” by Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines religious quietism as:

…the doctrine which declares that man's highest perfection consists in a sort of psychical self-annihilation and a consequent absorption of the soul into the Divine Essence even during the present life. In the state of "quietude" the mind is wholly inactive; it no longer thinks or wills on its own account, but remains passive while God acts within it.

For the Catholic Church, this doctrine, which was banned, is a grave error or sin.  It leads to erroneous notions which, if consistently followed, would prove fatal to morality. It is fostered by Pantheism and similar theories, and it involves peculiar notions concerning the Divine cooperation in human acts.”

Yet it is difficult to see any of this dangerous material in “A Short Method of Prayer” by Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon (1648-1717).  Rather than being about “anything goes” and the abandonment of either religious or conventional morality, this book, and the quietism it expresses, is mild and inviting.  By laying down your will, or parts of it, we invite the Divine into our formerly restless minds.  

Of course, if you are running a church, want to fill pews, and fill up the collection basket, this kind of religious stance could be dangerous.  But for the rest of us, quietism is a perfect way to enter into a relationship with the divine unhindered by organized structures, either spiritual or religious.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Bunker Hill: a City, a Siege, a Revolution

Nathaniel Philbrick in Bunker Hill: a City, a Siege, a Revolution, does an admirable job depicting the series of complex events which lead up to the Battle of Bunker Hill.  He charts the evolving nature of the American Revolution, beginning with local trouble in Boston regarding taxation and smuggling, up into the Battle of Bunker Hill, which cemented, in the eyes of most patriots, that this war was now for independence, and not to ensure the rights of English colonists.

He pays special attention to Dr. Joseph Warren, who was killed in the battle.  More popular than George Washington, if he had not been killed, he would, no doubt, had been a leader of the revolution on par with Washington, Adams, Jefferson. In other words, a founding father.

Friday, January 6, 2017

A Quarrel Like Men in the World

I am enchanted by this story of two monks living in the Egyptian desert (the so-called, Desert Fathers of early Christianity"

Two brothers had lived together for many years and never had a quarrel. One day, the first said: ‘Lets have a quarrel like men in the world outside do’. The second replied: ‘But I don’t know how to have a quarrel’. So the first said: ‘Look, I’ll put down a brick between us and I’ll say: “It’s mine”. Then you must reply: “No, it’s mine”. And so the quarrel will begin. So they found a brick and put it between them and the first said: ‘It’s mine’, and the second said: ‘No, it’s mine’. So the first replied: ‘Oh well then, if it’s yours, take it’. And so they did not succeed in having a quarrel.

from France, Peter. Hermits: The Insights of Solitude, Random House.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Greeker than the Greeks: Sodomy and Allegory

I use this blog as a clearing house.  All in all, it serves this function well.  Things that would sit moldering, at least get perched on the lip of being read by others. I also get to bring back works from literal death; I take a moribund text and pump it with air.

So, here is my master’s thesis, submitted in 1995.  It was written on a word processing machine.  The letters embossed in real print.  It was unfair, nearly immoral, for the Boston University Philosophy Department to have a PhD program.  Even in 1995, teaching jobs were hard to come by (about 50% of philosophy PhDs never got a job in their field) and today it is far worse.  The Humanities are an employment graveyard.  Program which accept more student than can possibly get employment resemble little more than a pyramid scheme.

This, coupled with the haughty, denigrating attitudes of some professors toward graduate students (a common enough phenomenon, I now realize, which still does not make it right) made jumping ship with a masters  one of my wisest life choices.  I went my way, they went theirs; they puttered about about Scottish philosophy; I did my work. In the end, it was a productive divoice.

The title of the thesis is taken from Joyce’s Ulysses, where Stephen is warned that Bloom is “Greeker than the Greeks,” here a reference, probably, to sodomy.  In my thesis, it fits with the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria’s project to interpret Judaism as a far purer example of Hellenic philosophy than Greek philosophy itself.

So here it is:

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Deep Unease with Sex : Young Goodman Brown & Other Stories

Revisiting Nathaniel Hawthorne in Young Goodman Brown and other Short Stories reveals what you probably didn’t see when reading this collection in junior high.  Hawthorne’s unease with the body (the female body in particular) sex, and sensual pleasure, is the overriding orientation of nearly all these tales.

Take the story “The Birth-Mark,” ostensibly about the failed quest for human perfection, it also reveals a crippling sense of unease regarding women as embodied creatures -- fully human and therefore fully flawed.

Read with an adult eye, these stories take on a whole new, menacing tone.