Book Review: Presocratic Philosophy – A Very Short Introduction by Catherine Osborne

In my efforts to educate myself, I have been growing in appreciation of good philosophy over the last decade or so. But I’ve not really looked at it in any kind of systematic way. I’ve read a few bits and bobs here and there, but I wanted to go back to some of the earliest examples we have. The most common might be those found in the Old Testament of any bible, not least in the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. But neither of those works fall under the heading of Greek philosophy. Of that variety, the earliest I read was Plato’s Republic, so I have some grasp of the Socratic dialogue, but nothing of what came in between. Rather than read the surviving works themselves, I figured that a VSI would be a good place to start. Over the course of this year, expect a few more VSI reviews about philosophers.

Osborne starts the book in a slightly unexpected manner, by looking at a recent discovery of a text that seems to fill in some gaps in the understanding of one particular philosopher: Parmenides. We get presented with a translation of the fragments that survive, which made me rather glad I read an expert analysis rather than the raw texts themselves, as they are completely different from anything I have previously read. As might be expected from the term Presocratic, they are certainly not in the form of a Socratic dialogue, nor are they sets of propositions and reasoning, but neither are they anything like the more discursive musings of Wittgenstein.

Rather, it’s almost poetry, but rather fractured and obscure. I wanted to ask “what do you mean by that” but then the past is a different country, isn’t it? They do things differently there.

The book begins by jumping in the middle and looking at a relatively recent discovery on the work of Empedocles. Some fragments of his work were already known, but these just looked like a really bad jigsaw puzzle. In fact a picture is included which rather resembles such a puzzle. From what was reconstructed, we can see that Empedocles’ view is that that universe ebbs and flows between periods of unity and periods of strife.

Yet it struck me as rather peculiar how much could be taken from such fragmentary remnants. The whole chapter is full of speculation over Empedocles’ views yet the amount of text we actually have barely runs to two (fairly short) pages. I think the point was not that Osborne was exegeting Empedocles but to illustrate the issues that we have when trying to understand ancient philosophy.

From here, we widen our scope and look at the general concerns of the presocratic philosophers. But Osborne is cautious. Apparently, the study of this period has been dominated by a metanarrative that tells us the kinds of questions that the presocratics asked themselves and which their work attempted to answer. Osborne’s view is that this metanarrative is misleading. Not that it is wildly wrong, but that it has led generations of scholars to approach the presocratics with certain questions in mind. Such questioning then narrows the scope of research and does not allow the presocratics to speak for themselves. Here, I could see why this could be a problem given the parallels in biblical scholarship.

With that cautionary note, Osborne does play somewhat into this metanarrative by positing that one of the overarching themes is the question of “first things” or, to put it another way, what is fundamental? Here we can put Empedocles into some kind of context. The main figure in this chapter is Parmenides who has the curious argument that nothing ever changes. This is very well done and the figure of Parmenides certainly stuck in my head a little clearer than Osborne’s portrayal of Empedocles. This particular argument is one that I think is very important as it serves as a good example of a false argument that needs to be critiqued, but when one reads it at face value it appears to make sense. So it becomes necessary to dig into it and unearth the hidden assumptions in order to assume its falsity.

The next major figure we deal with is Heraclitus. Some may have heard of him as he is most famous for the idea that one cannot step into the same river twice (the idea being that because the river is ever-flowing if you set foot in the same physical location, the water that makes the river will have moved on). So we can see again that the question of change crops up. This also features in a chapter on Zeno’s paradoxes which will be familiar to anyone who remembers their introduction to differential calculus. This is another example of an ancient puzzle that can still be used to expose poor reasoning. Though one idea that Osborne moots is that this, as well as Parmenides’ ‘no change’ hypothesis, may have been designed to do just that. i.e. that they were jokes rather than seriously held ideas. It’s an hypothesis I like, though I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to give an informed opinion as to its correctness.

Eventually we come to Pythagoras; one of the few presocratics that almost everyone will have heard of, but for the wrong reason. He is here portrayed a mystic cult leader who abhorred the idea of leaving a written legacy so who we only know through word of mouth and the odd bit of possibly authentic writing left by some of his more dissident disciples. But as for the idea of his having discovered the theorem of right-angled triangles for which he is famed, there is scant all evidence to support it. Rather, he is better portrayed as a man obsessed with numbers and their hidden meanings, making him more of a numerologist than a mathematician.

In this review, I’ve mentioned just a few of the philosophers who are included in this short work. There are many more besides. In being given the brief for this book, Osborne had a very tough job on her hands, but she’s done an admirable job. This book introduced me to a wealth of new names and helped colour in some areas of philosophy that I only knew the bare outlines of. If you are looking for a very short introduction on the subject, then this definitely is the right book to turn to. Even beforehand, having flicked through some translations of the original works without commentary, I found them hard going. But even more so after having read this, I would think I need a helping hand to guide me along a tour of this very old, very different world from that which we live in today, but whose influence may be inferred, if only you have the right spectacles on and know where to look.

Book Review: Watching the English by Kate Fox

Before I begin, it’s worth noting that there are two versions of this book around. One has a cover of two people under an umbrella, reading a newspaper on some green seats, seemingly in some kind of sports stadium. The latter is more pale and has seagulls and fish n’ chips on the cover. The version I am reviewing is the earlier one with the green cover.

I had expected this to be something like the literary equivalent of observational comedy, perhaps in the spirit of Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Small Island. So it was something of a surprise turn to find out that the premise is meant to be one of anthropological study. Yet this isn’t exactly a full on academic study. It’s more like an anthropologist’s holiday. At home.

It’s also worth noting that this is specifically about the English. It’s not a study of British behaviour, because Fox believes that the Welsh, the Scottish and the Northern Irish have their own distinct identities and even that when most people speak of “Britishness” they tend to refer more to something specifically English than to any of the other nations that make up the union, let alone any blending of the cultures. So it’s a slightly controversial start. Another issue that ought to be dealt with is that of the multicultural nature of Britain. Now while Fox acknowledges this in her introduction, she seems to pay scant attention to it in the main body of the book. If anything, I think this may be due one major oversight in that she doesn’t acknowledge the differences between life in cities, towns and the countryside. If anything, her study rather excludes those who live in urban environments, particularly with a population that contains a high number of people who come from other cultures, other countries. Instead, we get a fairly middle-class suburban portrait of the English.

One of the overarching themes is that of the English sense of humour. In looking at this there has to be a contrast, so Fox takes on board the critics of English humour or those who are just simply flummoxed by it. The tendency is for humour to be in the very air that we breathe. It is not necessarily that we feel the need to make a joke out of everything, but rather that we choose to look to find the amusing, the quirky or the ironic in any situation. This is linked the idea of the English underplaying a lot of things. One might think of any number of guides for American tourists who don’t understand that the phrase “that’s not bad” is a statement of praise, not criticism. So while this Englishman finds the hyperbolic brashness of American adjectives over the top, I am aware that I might be viewed as being dishonest if I don’t jump up and down in ecstasy if I am pleased with something.

The other theme that is spread throughout the book is the idea of the class system. Despite her anthropological background, she refrains from using the obscure categorisations one comes across occasionally. Instead she sticks to talking about working class, middle class and upper class, as well the subdivisions within each. One cannot help but think as one reads whereabouts one fits. I would state that my family were probably lower middle class with the majority of my schoolfriends also lower middle class with a few upper class. At university, this shifted rather where the majority were middle-middle to upper-middle. These days, I continue to be lower class than my peers, mainly due to my lack of property and my preference for reading books than driving cars or going on overseas holidays. I’m sure you can think through your own circumstances and consider where you fit.

The first half of the book is devoted to conversation; an area that I am in no way skilled. So while I recognised much of what was discussed, it was as looking through the glass at a zoo to a familiar but dangerous beast who I have no desire to get into close contact: small talk.

The second half is much more structured by looking at specific set of “rules” such as those for humour, work, home, sex & relationships and travel. Again, many of these were recognisable if sometimes loosely. There was much to smirk at when one recognises either oneself or acquaintances who are described with eerie accuracy, though this was tempered by the sense that some nuance was lost in favour of a humour borne out of generalisation.

With that critique noted, I would still recommend this an astutely observed book written with a most enjoyable verve. Or perhaps a bit of English understatement is in order by declaring it to be: not bad.

Book Review: Jesus – A Very Short Introduction by Richard Bauckham

One might well work out that, being a christian, I am somewhat interested in the figure of Jesus. My aim really is to come to as true and fair an understanding of this figure as possible. One might question why I chose to read the VSI of Jesus – surely I know it all already? Well, while I might try my best to be a faithful disciple, Jesus is a figure one can never see him from enough angles. Over the next year, I aim to look at a number of viewpoints, some of which are referred to in this short book.

The opening gambit is the question of “how can we know about Jesus?” In and of itself, this would entail a whole other VSI in and of itself. So we skip over the details of textual and form criticism and jump to the working hypothesis that the gospels are, by and large, the most reliable works through which we can know who Jesus was. Other reviewers of this book object to this, as it does leave some key questions and objections unanswered. Though Bauckham does refer the reader to his earlier work, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which makes a more compelling case than that presented here.

Rather than dive into the texts, Bauckham takes his time to let the reader get a look at the time, place and culture in which we may find Jesus. 1st century Israel/Palestine was a fascinating arena, though we focus mainly on the strands of Judaic thought that Jesus would have encountered. From here he looks at the one topic that Jesus spoke about more than any other: the kingdom of God. This is done in two ways, by looking at what Jesus did and also what Jesus said. It is in reading these chapters that one sees the need to have started with an assumption in the historicity of the gospels. In doing so, we can see what one of the major obstacles is in modern evangelism, where a healthy sceptical questioning of the biblical sources tips over and becomes an irrational denialism (think of a parallel between climate change deniers or young earth creationists, both of whom would try to claim the ground of reasonable scepticism but who in truth are impervious to evidence).

The kind of view that Bauckham puts forward is of Jesus being very Jewish, understanding the history of Israel and enacting renewal. Yet Jesus did this by reinterpreting the Torah and having a revolutionary way of looking at and speaking of God. The question that would probably be at the forefront of many people’s minds is “who is Jesus?” Yet Bauckham builds up to this, only asking the question once the background has been fully sketched (I say ‘sketched’ because in a VSI there is insufficient room to fill in many of the details). The answer is, as ever, many sided. We look briefly at Jesus’ identity as Messiah and as Son of God. Though necessary to include these, I felt there could have been a lot more said that would clarify the matter for readers who may have chosen to pick up this book having relatively little understanding of Jesus or what churches over the centuries have taught about him.

Naturally enough, as study of Jesus should, Bauckham eventually comes to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Bauckham remains resolutely orthodox in his stance here, affirming the historicity of the Easter weekend and again drawing on the eyewitness testimony, especially via the “embarrassment criteria” of having women recorded as the first to see Jesus risen from the dead. If anything, this chapter is a bit of a paraphrase of the Easter narratives, mainly as a combination of Mark and John’s gospels as well as 1 Corinthians 15.

The book concludes with how Jesus has been understood by the Church. The focus here is on the early church rather than views from the 2nd century onwards. He resists the idea that Paul was the real founder of Christianity, noting that that idea only emerged around the 19th century.

I would hope that most find this a helpful book. Bauckham is very orthodox in his view and doesn’t make space here for a wide variety of more heterodox views. So if you are looking for an overview of different beliefs, then this is probably not the best book for you. It is a view of Jesus that I largely agree with, even if some elements are glossed over and questions of high or low christology only appear towards the end and are dealt with in a very cursory manner. But if you have heard of the idea of a difference between the “Jesus of faith” and the “Jesus of history” then this is a good place to start to help see why such a distinction is false. And if you think you know who Jesus is, it’s never a bad idea to take a fresh look.

A Wednesday thought – a case for corporate profits on the left

In the last week, the election campaign has focused on which of the two main parties are the better prospect for “business”. I use the term in quotation marks because it is such a broad term with many aspects, that anyone can almost mean anything by it.

The focus has been on a small number of Conservative-cheering chief executives come out and in a shock move that took everyone by surprise criticising Labour. In some cases the attacks on Labour were more vicarious as the criticisms were more directed against Ed Miliband.

Needing to save political face, Ed Balls was sent off to the Newsnight studio where he made a bit of a mess of things. Now while there is a very good case for saying that today’s Labour party is far too far to the political right, they remain further to the left than the Tories, even if that has as much meaning as saying that a place is further south than Greenland.

So here’s my attempt at making a case, from a left wing perspective, for why companies should be making profits.

The core of the case has to be that for a civilised, progressive country that looks after its young, its elderly, its sick, its disabled, its unemployed, its homeless or any other vulnerable group, there has to be a guaranteed provision for them. By being a guarantee, this means that the charity of the wealthy cannot be relied upon. For too long there has been a meta-narrative of the “deserving poor” when what is needed is social justice that, like legal justice, is blind to any impediments or prejudice.

Such a guarantee is a costly thing and it needs to be funded. This is where companies can make their contribution. By making profits, which are then taxed fairly, sufficient funding can made for every necessary public service. The main obstacle to this is neoliberal trickle-down ideology that insists, contrary to evidence, that the private sector, subject to market forces, is best placed for the provision of services. Once this false idol can be slain, then the tricky job of balancing the books comes first with a forecast of what central costs will be in the coming years. Then one can determine how much tax needs to be raised (though given the huge cost of the bank bail outs, an over recovery is needed) in order to recoup the costs.

But if companies are not paying sufficient tax then we will continue to run a budget deficit, funded by ever increasing debt. Such has been the case for the last 6 years.

Therefore, one of the major contributors to the public purse has to be corporation tax. The two main obstacles to this are tax avoidance and not having sufficient (un-avoided) pre-tax profits from which tax may be paid. So there are two prongs to using corporations to help fund public services, but they are not mutually exclusive.

This why many on the political left have made such a big deal out of tax avoidance. From the current corporate mindset, though, tax is seen merely as an expense that should be minimised. In this regard, what is needed is a change in the mindset, so that tax is seen not as a burden but as a contribution to the society in which the corporation is based.

The factor that the left is less noisy about is the fact that in order to be able to pay tax, companies must be allowed to make pre-tax profits. The difficulty that this brings for the left is that the cause of profits is generally attributed to some combination of over-charging customers or exploiting workers. If one accepts this premise, then it cannot be morally right for any company to make profits but the consequence then is that there’s insufficient funding for public services. If one is to then make a moral case for profit-making activities then the two-fold premise of profit creation must be brought into question. In other words, can a company pay its employees a reasonable wage, charge its customers a fair price for its goods or services and still turn a profit?

If the answer to this is ‘no’, then reducing loopholes that allow for tax avoidance is meaningless since, if all loopholes are closed, we would only seek to then go on and eliminate the existence of profits that could be taxed in the first place.

Therefore, I contend that profits are necessary. Whether they are regarded as a necessary evil is certainly a point that could be further debated. And, of course, what constitutes a reasonable size of profit could also be debated, hopefully in relation to the size of revenue of the business but without falling into the financially naive trap of trying to make a point of rhetoric based on “Co X had £Y of revenue but only paid £z in corporation tax”.

Highs and lows of christology

I’ve been thinking about Jesus lately. It’s probably the sort of thing christians ought to do, but then again I’m not necessarily a very “good” christian, whatever that means. In particular, I’ve been thinking of the aspect of Jesus known as christology. In case you’ve not come across the term before, it’s about how you view Jesus in relation to his qualities as being human and as being God.

A “low” christology tends to emphasise Jesus’ humanity over and above his divinity while a “high” christology tends to see Jesus primarily as God where the ‘incarnate’ is slightly more subdued.

I would hope it’s fair to say that the vast majority of christians subscribe to the idea that Jesus was fully God and fully human. However, it’s also probably fair to say that not everyone (myself included) understands this. It’s a dichotomy close to the heart of the christian faith that becomes harder to understand the more one thinks about it.

The way I tend to go about it is to alternate. As I try to live a life of discipleship, at times it seems to make more sense to think of Jesus primarily human, where the idea of his being God is slightly out of focus in the background. At other times it helps to get an understanding of God through looking at Jesus, which inevitably brings with it a higher christology. Such times tend to ebb and flow, sometimes depending on what teaching we have at my local church, at other times on my own study and musing.

If we look at the gospels, one of the most noticeable differences is between the low relatively low christology of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke) and the higher christology of the gospel of John.

In the various evangelical/(ana)baptist/charismatic churches I have been a part of over the years, there is nearly always a real love for John’s gospel above the others. Mark often gets overlooked. It’s possibly in seeking for a sense of balance then that I am drawn to Mark and to seek a fairly low christology.

The highest end of the christology could well be said to be Docetism, an idea condemned as a heresy as it viewed Jesus as God but that he only had the appearance of being human. At the other extreme is Ebionitism which, amongst other things, says that Jesus was merely human and denies that he was one and the same as God.

Perhaps it is our failure to understand the paradox that leads to a suspicion against those who put forward a view that leans more towards one point of view. For example, the late Marcus Borg saw the American evangelical high christology as verging on the docetic and as a result advocated such a low christology that he denied the historicity of the resurrection.

Of late, I’ve been in a season of low christology. But for some reason that seems to be giving way to a higher view. Wherever we are, we can end up unnecessarily disagreeing with those who are at another point of the cycle. The other day I thought of an image of a rope. It’s made up of multiple chords, each of which is made up of other threads, some of which may be frayed or pointing in odd directions but on the whole, the chords spiral round one another and bind together. So it is with different christologies. We may not all point in the same direction all of the time, but given time we move along the timeline of our thread and we all end up winding towards Jesus.

In thinking this through, I couldn’t help but wonder about how we try to tell others about Jesus. My observation is that by and large the Jesus evangelists speak of is the Jesus of high christology. We refer to him as Jesus Christ without ever saying what Christ actually means. This is partly why some (e.g. Tom Wright) refrain from using the term Christ as it has come to be thought of as his surname instead of a royal title signifying his anointing. We refer to Jesus as “Son of God” as though it’s the most natural term to toss around, somehow implying that we fully understand what that means and expecting someone else to be on the same wavelength.

In my opinion, this is an arrogant and unhelpful approach.

Jesus didn’t come into the world declaring himself to be God. Read the gospels; you’ll have to look carefully to be able to construct an argument of Jesus’ divinity. This is where C.S. Lewis’ trilemma is rather unhelpful, as the message that Jesus preached was not “[I am God. Worship me]” or anything like that. The one thing he spoke about more than any other was the kingdom of God (or kingdom of heaven).

Rather, Jesus appeared as a human. That was how he was first known. I’ve heard preachers say that his earliest disciples dropped what they were doing because they were answering God’s call. I emphatically disagree with that point of view. They didn’t know that Jesus was God. They followed a man, a teacher, someone with a reputation. It was over time spent in Jesus’ company that they come to some level of understanding. Peter’s confession doesn’t appear at the start of any of the gospels. It only comes part way through. Even then, though Jesus affirms that the declaration that he is the Jewish Messiah is the foundation of God’s renewed people, the Church, there still remains much that is unknown or misunderstood. It is only after the resurrection that the pieces start to fall into place and we get the first semblance of a high christology.

So if we try to introduce the world first and foremost to a Jesus of high christology then we are telling the story back to front. It starts with the conclusion and asks for that to be accepted, which is a rather large pill to swallow. It’s no wonder that it is so readily rejected.  It’s not how Jesus introduced himself. If he had, I’m sure the charges of blasphemy would have come far sooner than they did.

To my present understanding, part of the point of Jesus being a human was that he met us at our own level. He trod on the earth entrusted to us, he ate the food we made from it and he defecated it back again. Though he spoke of things of heaven, he drew his analogies from the world around that he saw every day, that he breathed in and out every day for over 30 years. To gloss over this and dive straight into declaring Jesus to be the risen Messiah is like skipping your meat and two veg by going straight for dessert.

If we can get to grips with a thoroughly human Jesus first, then we progress “upwards” and read the Easter narratives in the light of a life of deeds and words. It is right that we follow Jesus but it is hubris to think that there is any novelty in this. The disciples walked this path long before you or I, as have millions of christians across centuries since. Though with such a high footfall, the erosion caused by those who’ve gone a little off the track can make it hard to discern the narrow way.

Only then, if we can put on the glasses of a high christology can we loop back and meet Jesus afresh. It is this cycle that I referred to earlier and why I believe that it is hard to revisit the gospels too many times. There is always something fresh to be found; though of course one must be cautious against seeking novelty if orthodoxy becomes clichéd.

I have a hypothesis about why it is that evangelism is so often stated in terms of a high christology. It is to do with a reaction against the flattening out of the richness and variety of christian belief so that it fits into a neat box called “theism”. Against those who would like to bundle up christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. into this one term, there can be a temptation to go straight for the concept of “God”. But to do so is rather a tough task, not least due to the variety of ways even within just christianity that people speak of God. But we have a trick up our sleeve. If we believe that Jesus is God incarnate and take on board the idea that “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30) and “No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.” (John 14:6-7) then we can point to Jesus. But doing this as a first response asks us to take a conclusion (a high christological view) and asks someone else to use this as their starting point. It may be a quicker answer to a critic but it is not an invitation to join in on a journey of discipleship.

There is a problem with this hypothesis. At present, I’m reading Eusebius’ ‘History of the Church’ and in it there is evidence of a consistent high christology in the first few centuries following Jesus’ resurrection. There is little by way of an expression of low christology. So it might be that evangelism via the high route is simply a tradition that has been in good stead for some 1,700+ years.

There is another problem with my rather idealistic view on introducing Jesus via a low christology. It is this: Jesus lived among, and spoke to, 1st century Jews. He was one himself. Their background, cultural understanding, their worldview if you will, was vastly different to ours. So there are allusions in the gospels which one can understand if you look into such a worldview (and here, the christian world owes a debt of gratitude to historically-minded theologians whose diligent work has shed light on this) but which are easily lost if one approaches the gospels under the misapprehension that they were written for a modern, western audience. Therefore, the message that Jesus taught cannot be fully comprehended without a modicum of education.

While this is no bad thing, it risks reducing christianity to an intellectual exercise. Like the flattening out into mere theism, this would be an equal underrepresentation. Having trod the path from low christology to high christology and back again several times, one gets a glimpse of something more than mere history, more than a binitarian view of Jesus and God the Father. Holding it altogether, bringing life, is the Spirit. And that’s a whole other way of looking at christianity.

Book Review: Capital (Das Kapital) by Karl Marx

Having read some of the great communist works early last year (The Communist Manifesto, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific) here I finally come to the daddy of them all. Or did I?

First up, though, a confession. The version I read, in the Oxford World Classics range, is an abridgement. Marx originally intended for his magnum opus to be 5 volumes, but he only finished volume 1. Volumes 2 and 3 were substantially complete at the time of his death, finished off and published by Friedrich Engels. The volume being reviewed contains most of volume 1, a tiny bit of volume 2 and some slightly longer extracts from volume 3. I don’t normally read abridged versions, but it was not my intention to become a disciple of Marx, but rather to understand his thoughts so that I could have a more informed view of what Marx thought. After all, was he not rumoured to have said, upon hearing a particular view described as Marxist, “if that is Marxism, then I am not a Marxist”?

Marx begins with a detailed look at the nature of commodities. What are they are how they are valued. He distinguishes between different kinds of values. It’s important to keep these in mind throughout, as use-value is a different beast to exchange-value, yet we all too easily think of “value” as though it were one thing represented on a price tag. The example Marx starts with is that of a coat and of linen. A coat may be exchanged for 20 yards of linen. Yet the use-value of a coat is not the same as the use-value of 20 yards of linen, for they are intrinsically different and serve different purposes. So use-values cannot be used for comparison. Instead, we need to then consider exchange-values. So a coat may be exchanged for 20 yards of linen or for a quantity of coal or for any other commodity. But then all we have are a set of relative exchange-values expressed, essentially, in terms of barter. One may choose any one commodity to be the standard by which all others are measured. In the economics of the time Marx lived and wrote, this was gold. And we still refer to the gold standard today. Yet it might be interesting to consider what Marx may have made of something like Bitcoin.

And so we get to the concept of money. We see that money is an intangible thing but which is commonly represented by gold, and which is the means of exchange. There is a slight flaw in Marx’s analysis here as he makes a statement that the value of money does not change with time. Yet as almost anyone trained in economics or accounting will be able to tell you, a sum of money does diminish in value over time. Unless you have perfectly steady state economics (see here for more detail) then the time value of money has to be taken into account.

From here we get to the notion of capital. It is something that is tricky to summarise, as it is best dealt with by example. The kind that Marx uses is by contrasting two different types of transactions. One of these is what he sees as a precapitalist kind of transaction whereby an artisan has a commodity, sells it for money and then uses that money to buy other commodities. In contrast, the capitalist transaction process begins with money which is used to buy a commodity (C) and then gets sold on for a higher value of money (M). In chain form, the contrast is between C-M-C’ and M-C-M’. Where C’ is a different commodity from C and M’ is a different sum of money from M. Yet M and M’ are both capital. M is the initial capital and M’ is the final capital. Only then, in Marx’s analysis M’ then becomes the start of the next chain of transactions.

As an aside, it was interesting to think through more recent economic practices, particularly that of short selling, which gained notoriety during and in the aftermath of the 2008 global economic crash. That is very similar to C-M-C’ only in this case C=C’ and the commodity is sold before it is purchased.

For those of you who have some basic accountancy training, the concept is readily identifiable as the process of what happens when you roll forward the accounts of a sole trader where their initial sum is generally referred to as capital anyway. So even though Marx is rightly considered the father of communism, this is not an inherently communistic work. The fact that modern capitalists still use his methodology is indicative that in this respect, at least, his analysis was spot on.

One of the odd features of the book is that at various junctures, Marx tries to posit that there are fundamental contradictions within the capitalist system. But I had to ask myself “what contradictions?” Perhaps it is a consequence of my more modern point of view, but it seemed that the contradictions were only apparent when phrased in the particular way that Marx puts them. In other words, it was flawed questioning and the assumptions that went into those questions that skewed Marx’s thinking and creating the illusion of a contradiction when in fact there was none. One could think of Zeno’s paradoxes as a comparison.

One of the key notions that Marx introduces is that of “surplus value”. He derives this by looking at the value that a worker imparts to his work. As soon as the value imparted is equal to the value required for the worker to live off, then anything in addition is considered surplus. In other words, if (to use today’s prices by way of illustration) a worker is paid £75 per day, then Marx argues that (s)he need only work for as long as it takes him/her to produce £75 worth of goods. If, though he makes this up in 6 hours and the working day is 12 hours, then the employer, the capitalist, gets £150 of value out of the worker, but only spends £75. It is the difference between these two that Marx defines as surplus value.

You may wonder, as I did, whether this was not simply profit. It seems a slightly roundabout way of looking at it. Indeed, it is not until much later on that the admission is finally made that surplus value is the same as profit. Though the example I used above was done so deliberately, as Marx always assumes that rate of surplus of surplus profit is 100%. This assumption is never justified, though his analysis would seem to still work if a different rate were used. It is just unfortunate that his choice of 100% means that some of his numbers are easily confused.

This leads Marx to look at the exploitation of the labourer. His chapter on working conditions makes for sobering reading, as he looks at the extent to which the capitalist system sought to extract out of the worker every last ounce of work in order to generate more and more surplus value (profit). There is even an argument made that work diminishes the lifespan of the worker. Marx is not at this point talking about unhealthy working conditions, but that the mere act of work reduces one’s life expectancy. It’s an argument I found unconvincing as there are so many other factors to take in to account that a controlled experiment or study to determine shortened life seems unfeasible. So at best it is supposition.

Having looked at how capital gives rise to more capital, the question Marx then asks is “[where did it start from?]” In answering this Marx reverts back to his historical paradigm as espoused in the introduction to The Communist Manifesto. He argues that capital only arose through violence and theft. While I subscribe to the idea that there is no such thing as a neutral view of history, Marx is clearly far from it here. He seems to cherry pick his evidence and ignores a wide variety of other factors. It’s not a wholly false view, but it does come across as over-polarised and quite susceptible to critical enquiry.

The rest of the book looks in some detail at various aspects of 19th century industry through the perspective of the above analysis. The focus is inherently industrial which was certainly right for the time that Marx was writing in, though as we are now in a post-industrial age it seems that much of what he observed has now been rendered redundant. Capitalism has moved on and changed in many aspects.

It is for this reason that I would consider much of Das Kapital to be out of date. It served its purpose in a different age, but one has to pick through it to find elements that are applicable to today’s world. I would certainly not advocate throwing the whole lot out of the window, as some might be tempted to do, particularly if they continue under the impression that Das Kapital is a programme for a communist economy. Because one of the failings (possibly Marx may have intended this for later volumes) is that while the book is full of critique, he proposes very little positive change. He says “[this is wrong]” but doesn’t put forward an alternative. Also the very high focus on the industrial age of manufacture has little bearing on a predominantly service-based economy. He does attempt to address services, but is all too brief and dismissive.

So where do we go from here? First of all, at the start of the volume Marx states that he is building upon the work of G.W.F. Hegel and his development of dialectic materialism. I confess that I have neither read any Hegel nor read much about him. So perhaps it would be wise to learn a bit more in that regard before reassessing Marx. Also, it seems that the modern world is need of a critique every bit as sharp as Marx’s, but which takes into account the changes that have occurred in the last century and a half or so. For that, I think our best bet is Thomas Picketty. So it is my intention to review his Capital in the Twenty First Century at some point. Before that, though, it is only fair to hear a view from the other end of politico-economic spectrum.

Book Review: The Desert Fathers by Various Authors

This is a collection of the sayings of the early christian monks, as published under the Penguin Classics label and translated by Benedicta Ward. As a very early piece of writing, it needs a good translation to be able to convey the message across centuries and languages. I’m no expert in languages so cannot speak as to the faithfulness of the translation. All I can say is that it was readily accessible.

A while ago, I mentioned it as being an omission from the Church Times list of the best 100 books. Indeed, that list had as its top 2, Augustine’s Confessions and The Rule of St Benedict, both of which owe a great debt to the Desert Fathers. So if they were considered to have a lasting influence, why not this work? That’s a question I can ask, but not one I’m in a place to answer.

When asking around about this, I was advised to read it very slowly and to consider each part carefully and thoughtfully. Thankfully, it was already my intention to have this as a coffee table book which I would dip into just a few pages at a time. For having flicked through it in the bookshop, I could see that it seemed to be made up of multiple short paragraphs, arranged in mini chapters by theme, but with no overall narrative or timeline. In that way, it rather resembles the book of Proverbs. One would be ill-advised to read that all the way through from start to finish in as few sittings as possible.

As such, it is almost impossible to review as one might a more conventional book. The sayings are grouped thematically. In some cases, the individuals are named, though frequently we are simply told the saying or the story comes from “a hermit” who remains anonymous. So what I’ll do is highlight a few of the sayings that particularly caught my attention.

One of the examples that struck me as particularly odd was the case of Macarius who, for reasons unknown, decided that he would sleep in an old pagan burial place, using a dead body as a pillow. Here he was taunted by some vocal demons including one who feigned to be the woman’s body upon whom he was sleeping. His response was to thump the body and speak dismissively. What exactly this was meant to demonstrate is lost on me. Was it about courage in the face of demons? If so, it seems a bizarre way to go about things. I’m certainly not going to be advocating sleeping on top of corpses.

Some of the most perturbing instances come from when these monks interact with one another. For example, in some cases they advocate being hospitable to those who visit them, but in others they will refuse to speak to someone, even their own family, causing much upset. One example is Theodore of Pherme was rude in such a manner to someone who knocked on his door for 3 days and eventually said to one of his disciples, “As a matter of fact, I said nothing to him because he’s only interested in getting credit by reporting what others have said to him.” So my question is: who ensured that this account was written down?

This next one I shall simply quote, suggesting it be filed under WTF:

“When Nesteros the Great was walking in the desert with a brother, they saw a dragon and ran away. The brother said, ‘Were you afraid, abba?’ Nesteros answered, ‘I wasn’t afraid, my son. But it was right to run away from the dragon, otherwise I should have had to run away from conceit.'”

For the most part, the sayings are fairly lifestyle-based and or concerned with wisdom. There’s very little by way of biblical theology. What there is, though is disappointingly wrong-headed. For example, there is one tale of a monk who gets the symbolic nature of communion but he himself is portrayed as a heretic by those who have fallen prey to a functionalist understanding. He is rebuked thus: “You mustn’t say that, abba; according to what the Catholic Church has handed down to us, even so do we believe, that is to say, this bread is the Body of Christ in very truth, and is not a mere symbol.”

I could not agree with their point of view, as I understand the idea of transubstantiation to be a false doctrine. Yet this view, first proposed by Justine Martyr, had clearly become widespread by the time of the desert fathers so it serves an historical interest as a marker in the drift from christianity to catholicism. Yet this flaw should not detract one from engaging with their more sound teachings.

Having finished it and had some time to reflect on it, the lasting impression is rather mixed. On the one hand there is great admiration for their devotion and some of the levels of commitment are far beyond anything I have ever witnessed. Yet this is tinged with sadness at the withdrawn and ascetic life they chose, which seems to be the very antithesis of a life-filled church. There is no sense of community or of a mission to the world. If anything, it is about personal holiness and about appeasement, seemingly linked to a works-based justification. The number of times “doing penance” is referred to adds weight to this conclusion.

I would recommend that you read it, but I couldn’t agree with all of it. I doubt many would.