Category Archives: Great Ideas

Books published under the Great Ideas series by Penguin Books

Book Review: The Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau

This is another of the Penguin ‘Great Ideas’ books that I’ve picked up on the off chance and had hidden away in my drawer at work for some time. After having moved office recently, I have been able to read at lunchtimes (previously I had one particularly obnoxious colleague who would talk all through lunchtime – often with his mouth full – and there was nowhere else to go) so this has been read in the middle of the working day.

Rousseau’s work is maybe not one that the majority of people have heard of. Amongst those who have an interest in political philosophy, though, it is regarded as something of a classic work.

So what is this social contract? Well, let me attempt to sketch an answer by contradiction. I recall a conversation I had with a fundamentalist libertarian where they argued that they had no duty to pay tax because they had not entered into any contractual arrangement for goods or services with the government. Their argument was that they should only pay for the precise goods and services which they have requested and have agreed a price with the supplier. As this individual did not have a contract which they had signed, they argued that they should be exempted from any obligation to society, including the paying of taxes.

While this was a ludicrous argument, based on a narrow view of contract law, applying to arenas of life where it does belong, it is interesting to consider what the best route is to take in countering it. One such answer is the idea of the social contract. This isn’t a paper contract that one signs, but is a tacit agreement between two sets of people, which we might broadly call the government the people, on how best to run a country.

I say “broadly call” because Rousseau brings in his own definitions, which are quite alien to a 21st century Englishman. For example, I would regard the term “sovereign” to denote a single person, the head of state. In our monarchy, that is the queen. In a republic, it would be the president. Yet for Rousseau the sovereign might not be a single person. A magistrate is not a low-level person who presides over a civil court. A prince is not a male member of the royal family.

What this leaves us with is a work that is rooted in a very different politics from that which we find ourselves in. If you wish to guide someone from A to B, it can be a little perplexing for someone who is starting from C; even more so when both A and C use the same terms but mean different things by them. As such, I cannot say that I fully understood the points he was driving at. Here and there, I found something to ‘hook into’ and find my bearings again, but it probably deserves to be read somewhat more slowly than the rate I rushed through it.

The book gets bogged down in some of the detail at times, such as how to conduct elections and the nature of dictatorship. On the latter point, Rousseau derives much of his understanding from the Roman Republic, which I was fortunate to be (by no design or specific purpose) reading Livy’s Early History of Rome at the same time. So while the historian of political thought may find Rousseau useful in tracing how modern western democracies view the nature of the relationships between citizens and their government, I cannot say that it has an enduring value in terms of the specifics of what Rousseau proposes.

If there is to be any application, it is in America where government is split into two arbitrary sides, entitled legislature and executive. In the UK, there is no such clear division, there is one government. Yet Rousseau contradicts himself on this particular point, as he states early on that to artificially separate the two functions (which are poorly defined) is not recommended yet he goes on later to talk about them as though they are two separate arms of government, but again with insufficient detail as to how someone is meant to discern between them.

The one major point where I disagreed with Rousseau is on the matter of taxation. This is something Rousseau sees as a burden on the people, but I couldn’t help but question whether the taxes he was subject to were the same as we have today. If you go back as far as the Roman Republic or the Roman Empire, then taxes were raised to keep the aristocracy in luxury and to fund wars. Indeed, our modern income tax began to take its current form as a way to finance the wars against France in the decades after Rousseau was writing. It seems he had little concept of the mechanics of a welfare state. While his opinion differed from mine, his view also wasn’t the same as my conversation partner alluded to above.

So what do I make of it? It’s a bit frustrating, as it’s dying for a re-write. If we clear up the muddled terminology then we could clarify the priorities of government, its democratic mandate and how it is funded. As it stands, it is a testament to the old adage that “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Rousseau’s world seems quite alien to 21st century Britain.

Book Review: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

After last year attempting to lay out my position as an egalitarian, but not a feminist, it seemed only fair to read some of the key texts in the latter movement. So where better to start than with a work which is widely regarded as one of the cornerstones in the genesis of feminism? Before I begin the review proper, though, I must say that I enjoy looking at the looks I get on public transport (for that is where I do the majority of my reading) from my fellow passengers when they see what I am reading. In this instance, it seemed to be mild surprise that a man in a suit in his early 30s would be reading a work of feminism from the late 18th century. Then they see that the hand in which I hold the book is ringless and there is a look of faint recognition there. I could speculate as to what they infer from that, but I shall leave that for you!

So how does Wollstonecraft’s argument go? Well, firstly, it is an argument. This is very much a piece of opinion, rather like an extended editorial in a modern newspaper. It is almost all reason and very little evidence. It is invective, rhetorical and written with great verve. She begins with a rather surprising admission: that women are the weaker sex. I know many women who can run faster and longer than I and who would have little trouble beating me in an arm wrestle. I also know many who would dispute Wollstonecraft’s claim.

She goes on to say that our entire society has progressed from this fairly innocuous factoid and drawn inferences from it that are unwarranted and incorrect, but that these form the educational and societal norms by which women are told that they are inherently different from the rest of humanity and therefore must suit different roles. This has been reinforced through education (or a lack thereof) and that something is needed to correct this unjust imbalance.

Her further analysis focuses on virtues. In her perception of society, some virtues are seen to desirable of men while a whole different sets of virtues were to be desirable of women. Wollstonecraft contends that the pursuit of virtue is inherently human and that the differences between the sexes are merely a matter of degree. In her crosshairs is the characteristic of coquettishness.

Her style of writing falls somewhere between the polemic and dialectic. The opening quarter of the book lays out the argument in summary with the remainder filling in the detail.

I think my main critique of this is consistent with my main critique of modern feminists: that being the Wollstonecraft contends that that those who disagree with her position are so because they are uneducated. Simple observation of feminists who are both highly educated and uneducated and non-feminists who are likewise educated and uneducated should be sufficient evidence to falsify this belief which persists as part of Wollstonecraft’s legacy.

Yet that word of caution should not be taken as a rejection of the treatise of the Wollstonecraft’s legacy as a whole. For something written in the 1790s, it comes across as a remarkably modern treatise, even if the vernacular hasn’t aged all that well. So whilst I might question some of the detail, the overall argument is sound and well worth heeding. If you’ve not read it, then I would encourage you to do so. The version I read was from the Penguin ‘Great Ideas’ series, which is a slight abridgement of the original text.

Book Review: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

Of late, I have bought a few editions in a series called ‘Great Ideas’ published by Penguin Books. They tend to be short works (or short abridgements of larger works) and represent a wide variety of influential writings covering the history of civilization.

I hadn’t actually planned on reading On Liberty at this time of year, but it so happens that I had an accident and needed to go to hospital to get something checked over. At the time, I was (and still am!) reading Paul and the Faithfulness of God as well as The Forsyte Saga, both of which are bulky books and which I didn’t want to carry around with me in A&E. So I grabbed the first slim book I could find and read through the first quarter of it while I was waiting to be seen, X-rayed and assessed. It was also intended as a first follow up from Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction.

In sitting down to review this book, I must admit that I found myself in a little difficulty. The book is written as an argument for a particular point of view, though Mill takes a number of tangents which distract from the main thrust of the book. One could choose to enter into a full-blown study of all these tangents and how they branch off from and feed into the core of his point. But to do so would require a great number of essays and I am aiming for a review of no more than about 900 words. So I shall try to stick to the point.

As I began to read I found myself thinking “I agree, I agree, I agree.” The opening argument over a person’s right to liberty provided that it does not infringe on another’s was an argument I have heard before, sometimes from my own mouth, at other times from others citing Mill. The further I read and the more I thought about it, though, the more I doubted the soundness of the argument. Just to pick a few points, Mill slightly paraphrases the old adage “no man is an island” but doesn’t really follow through with this. After all, if it is right to state that the no person should be hindered from any thought or action that doesn’t affect anyone else, does such a situation exist in real life? While at first glance something I think in the privacy of my own home may seem as isolated as one can get, can one really think that it is isolated from every subsequent thought, and hence action, that I undertake? If any of those thoughts and actions affect another, can one really say that were devoid of influence from earlier thoughts and actions? I would post not, though it is another matter to question whether or not any influence on another is a form of impingement on their liberty; a question that Mill does not seem to properly address.

After his initial discussion on liberty, he turns his attention to religion. If you know me and are familiar with Mill’s views on the matter, it will come as little surprise that I disagree with him. His portrait of what religion is, in particular christianity, seem to be particular to his experience and from this experience he extrapolates to take his negative views to apply more widely than can reasonably be justified. It is rather unfortunate that his rather skewed views on this topic have perpetuated.

From here, he moves on to his view on individualism as the paramount virtue which much must be protected. Though he doesn’t use the word, this is a founding exhortation of libertarianism. In some places, he makes a very good case, particularly with relation to not inhibiting genius. In terms of the argument that is there, one could find it very convincing, as indeed many who call themselves neoliberals do. That is, until you think about it. What he does is to try to play a false dichotomy between liberalism and authoritarianism, without considering alternatives or properly following through the consequences of individualism.

What makes it doubly bizarre is that he appeals to Bentham on a couple of occasions, and others comment that this liberalism is grounded in utilitarianism. Yet the conclusion that Mill draws is that the needs of the individual are paramount. In other words (to twist the familiar summary of utilitarianism which may be found in a popular film), the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. I would disagree with Mill on this. Because of my christianity, I would favour a more “communitarian” approach whereby, whilst preserving our individual freedoms as much as possible, the needs of others must be put ahead of our own.

Whether you agree with me or with the view of Mill that I have portrayed here, I would encourage you to read it. Even though I would not wholly endorse his view, there is a great deal that is merit worthy contained within this small volume. Given its influence on modern thinking, it also serves as a useful education in the roots of how many neoliberals think.

Book Review: The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels

As promised at the end of my review of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution, I will be following up this year with more reading of some key communist themes. And what could be a better place to start than with the communist manifesto? One could argue that no document written in the last 200 years has had such a profound effect on the course of world history. If we limit it to political history, then that case may be strengthened.

Before even opening it, though, the reader will almost inevitably be faced with some kind of prejudice. Because of what almost any educated person will know about communism and its chequered past, one might come to this document seeking an affirmation of their political point of view. Others may come with a wholly critical attitude, determined to disagree with every aspect. I came to this expecting to disagree with some aspects and agree with others, though I expected to agree with more than I disagreed with.

I refer to it as a document as it is only 34 pages long, so whether you consider this a real book review is up to you. Proportionally, it probably has the highest ratio of words in the review to words in what is being reviewed.

Published in 1848, it is clear from the start that this was a statement of a communism that already existed, albeit as a spectre. Written also before Marx’s Capital (which I hope to read and review later this year), it comes at the end of the period covered by Hobsbawm in his Age of Revolution. It opens with an assertion about history: that “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” This is the foundational principle on which the communist manifesto is built.

What Marx & Engels then go on to do is to describe the two classes which exist in all societies, the ruling class, the bourgeois, and the working class, the proletariat.

The approach to history is one that I don’t agree with. While, if you think through various aspects of history, one could adopt this very black and white methodology, it will ultimately fall short of being a true and fair description. In the 60 or so years leading up the publication of the communist manifesto, this may have been more apparent, which almost certainly had some level of influence on Marx & Engels, but it seems unreasonable to rewrite all history in this binary narrative. Yet that is precisely what they propose: to state history in terms of the present.

One could possibly look at the English Civil War or the Peasants’ Revolt in these terms without going too far wrong. But what if we look at early church history? Does the preaching of the gospel by Peter and Paul, the riots and imprisonments they faced fit this narrative? If one could construct such a narrative it would be highly forced and miss vitally important features.

As it is stated, therefore, I cannot agree unreservedly with the opening premise. That’s not to say it is wholly worthless. Given the historical and political background out of the communist manifesto came, it does help to put on this particular pair of glasses to see the metanarrative of what was going on in western Europe at the time. This is the task that Hobsbawm undertook, though it must be added that he was rather more sophisticated than the writers of the manifesto.

The feeling I got all the way through was one of anger. Not anger on my part, but that it was the product of disillusioned minds. It seemed easy to imagine that it might be the product of an intelligent, literate, but ultimately misguided teenager.

The argument roughly runs as thus: the bourgeois have been the rulers of Europe and that in spite of some obvious progress that has been made, they ultimately cannot be trusted and that since there are only two classes (according to the definition) then it is time for the proletariat to assume control. How this is to be achieved is muddled. At times, references are made to democratic elections, as there is an assumption that since the working classes outnumber the bourgeois that winning an election is inevitable. At other times, most famously at the end, there is a call for violent revolution.

There are many flaws in this analysis, not least the belief in the homogeneity of the working classes. It is quite patronising, even, to presume that because the communists wish for the working class to rule (though who, precisely, is never stated) that there should be universal support for the communist manifesto.

In fact, to call it a manifesto is a bit generous. There are very few proposals in it. Though there is a short list of 10 demands. One could go into more detail for each of these, though I may do that in a separate blog post. Oddly, the one that shocked me the most was the 10th: “Free education in all public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production &c., &c.” I am not certain as to whether the term “public schools” meant ‘public’ in the terms of being open to all or whether, as is peculiar in British history (remembering that Marx and Engels were both informed by the politics of Britain) of using the term ‘public’ when what it is actually meant is ‘private’. Perhaps one of you can enlighten me on this issue. Either way, to have the idea of free education to be thought of as radical makes me think how far we have come.

There are several issues I have with the vision that Marx & Engels proposed. It seems to me to be unrealistically ideal. They seem to hark back to some kind of ‘golden age’ of full employment, with a strong emphasis on agriculture. Whether such an age existed is dubious, yet their view of history prevents a sober assessment. I am also not a proponent of the revolutionary aspects of their proposal, in particular the idea of wresting property by force.

Though I could not wholly endorse them, that does not mean that I then fall back onto a default position of opposition. The critiques of the middle classes and the control of capital are not groundless. Yet the views which I hold to are roughly described, and criticised, by Marx and Engels. They refer to it as bourgeois socialism, where the emphasis is not about seizing political control, but about the improvement of the conditions of the working classes through reform rather than revolution.

It doesn’t take long to read, but there is much to ponder here. On the basis of what I have read, I could not consider myself, or be reasonably considered by others, to be a communist. I object to the hardline nature of the document but do agree with some of the points made.

I’ll let you make of it what you will.

Book Review: Confessions by Augustine of Hippo

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that I have started reading a few “theological autobiographies”. My aim was to do 3 this year, starting with Stanley Hauerwas’ Hannah’s Child, moving on to Jürgen Moltmann’s A Broad Place before finally ending up at one of the most famous of them all, Augustine’s Confessions.

There are quite a lot of translations around, so it’s worth pointing out to you that I read the Henry Chadwick translation. I can’t comment on whether or not it is a particularly faithful translation as I haven’t attempted to compare it to the original. What I can say, however, is that it rendered Augustine eminently readable. There were a few instances where I suspected some inference on Chadwick’s part; one that comes to mind was the phrase “hodge-podge” which was rather unexpected. That said, for a relative newcomer to Augustine, I had no major issues with it and would not hesitate to recommend it.

What, then, of Augustine himself and what he wrote? The whole book is written as a poem addressed to God. Thankfully, Chadwick hasn’t tried to give it rhyme or rhythm in English, though I am assured that this existed in the original Latin. As the title suggests, it largely consists of Augustine confessing what he sees as his past sins.

But to imagine that it is simply a list of wrongdoing would grossly mislead you. It is, however, very difficult to summarise. That is because the book is no one thing; it is many. But those multiple aspects are not sequential items; they are layers and threads that are intertwined and overlaid in a majestic tapestry. The autobiography aspects include his very frank and rather modern view of sexuality, some close friendships and what they meant to him, especially moving when the friendship as terminated by mortality.

There is some theological disputation here, particularly against the Manichees, a group that Augustine first joined and later rejected. Mixed in with this then are Augustine meditations on the nature of good and evil, God, mankind, the universe and the like. It is not, however, a systematic work of philosophy. Though writing centuries after the likes of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the stylisation is totally different. I read it mostly whilst commuting, with some excerpts whilst sat in a local park (yes, there has been a gap between finishing reading it and getting round to publishing the review – I didn’t sit in the park in November). As such, I was sort of swept away by it and can offer little by way of detailed critique. It is a book to return to and dissect at some point in the future, possibly with the aid of further writings of someone who is more familiar than I with the full depth and breadth of Augustine’s thoughts.

Being swept away however does not imply drowning. The text was not so obfuscating but provided some fascinating insights into Augustine’s mind. For me, one of the more intriguing aspects was his musings on space and time. Though, with the hindsight of the discoveries of modern physics, some of it looks a little wide of the mark, it would be anachronistic to dismiss his ideas as irrational. Instead, it is quite a remarkable feat considering when it was written, and one could easily think him a thousand years ahead of his time.

The end of the book trails off somewhat with a look at the early chapters of Genesis. Again, here the modern reader may be tempted to look at him out of his time, though it is really not clear, given the modern polarisation between good science and creationism/ID, what box he might seem to fit in. I have for some time failed in my efforts to get my hands on his The Literal Meaning of Genesis, but this seems to cover similar ground. It is a thoughtful consideration of what Genesis means, but though Augustine doesn’t explicitly refer to the creation story in modern terminology as a myth, he focuses on the meaning of it. Again, though it is hard to summarise and would hope you may do a better job than I did of getting your head around it.

There can be little doubt that this was the product of a great thinker of his time. The early emphasis on his struggles as a young man had strong resonances with me, making me wish I had read it in my late teens or early twenties. If you are reading this and you are in that age bracket then I would recommend this to you with some urgency. To anyone else, it is still a majestic piece of writing. Even if you are predisposed to disagree with Augustine, I would recommend it to you as an insight into the mind of one of the most influential figures from that time whose legacy has endured. If nothing else, the topics covered will almost certainly prompt you to think for yourself.

Book Review: The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

I have a particular bug-bear with isms and ists. These are often named after people with the ism or the ist being added on to the end to indicate a particular worldview represented by that individual. But how often do they bear relation to the work of the person themselves? In the past, I have sought to battle my own ignorance by reading Plato when I was sick of hearing about Platonism or of something being Platonic. I have also done similar with Euclid and Newton. So here we come to Darwin, the giant of biology and perhaps the father of Darwinism; or perhaps not.

The introduction of the book states that is important to distinguish the work of the man from the philosophical interpretations that have followed from it. Unfortunately, the rest of the introduction by Jeff Wallace (no relation to Alfred Wallace, as far as I know) shows that he has fallen prey to the mistake that he warns about himself in that he makes various claims about evolution which go beyond the biological evidence available.

So, moving onto the main text: Darwin begins with the mundane, to say the least. The subject of his opening chapter is pigeons, which he talks about at some length and which, to be honest, is pretty uninteresting to those of us who are not pigeon-fanciers. From here, where he looks at variation under domestication, he goes on to look at variation in the wider world, where man’s influence is not felt quite so directly.

Throughout the book, Darwin stresses the difficulty in trying to classify whether two animals (or plants) are variations within the same species or are different species altogether. His point, really, is that there is no sharp definition. Though it is clear that a horse is not of the same species as a mouse, there are grey areas elsewhere in the natural world; and examples of these are given as evidence to back up the point.

Having started with this preamble, Darwin moves onto the heart of the book, which is his theory of natural selection (note, the word ‘evolution’ is never used and the word ‘evolved’ is only the last word in the concluding chapter). It seems hard to come to this afresh, with it being such a well-known phenomenon that has been built upon over the years; so to put yourself in the shoes (glasses?) of the first readers for whom this was a new concept is a challenge for the modern-day reader.

From here, Darwin then spends the rest of the book looking at potential problems with his theory as well as outlining the evidence in favour of it. It was his honest approach at pointing out his own weaknesses that has garnered him so much high esteem in the scientific world, possibly more so than for the theory of natural selection itself. This, of course, was a two-edged sword, as it has provided ammunition for creationists and adherents of the intelligent design movement. The self-effacing lacunas in his theory take the form of falsification; in other words, Darwin is saying that if just one of many pillars on which his theory is founded would be proved false, then his whole theory would collapse. This book is completely lacking in the intolerant rhetoric and hysterical bleating found in the writings of so many of Darwin’s later adherents, which is why I was pleased to have read that Darwin himself was clearly not the model upon which the likes of Dawkins has based himself.

Darwin gives his reasoning for why he thinks these potential problems are not as great as they might seem at first and why natural selection is true. This latter part is done with several references to the notion of special creation as there are certain instances and observations which are well-explained by Darwin’s theory but which are unexplained (at least without some twisted explanation only concocted with hindsight) by the alternative.

The book is not without its flaws, however. On the one hand, Darwin is attempting to form, and give evidence for, a new scientific framework of understanding. At the same time, though, he is attempting to reach as wide an audience as possible. What this leaves us with is a mixture, where some parts of the book go into too much detail for the ordinary reader, making it turgid and really quite boring, while at other times skimming over detail and leaving the narrative sounding very much like an ancestor of Kipling’s Just-So stories.

This is somewhat remedied by the final chapter, where Darwin does finally break free from the constraints of evidence and reason, allowing himself a few flourishes of rhetoric, where he acknowledges that his book is only an introduction and that much more work is needed on tracing the family trees of species and tracing back to an original progenitor.

There are two elephants in the room with regards to the book. One is the origin of humans. The only time this is mentioned is right at the end of the book as an avenue for future research, though the topic is not broached in the main body of the text. The other is the absence of genetics. The book was written before genetics really became a major part of mainstream biology, and so numerous references are made to how unknown are the methods of transmission of characteristics and variations.

It can hardly be doubted how important this book is to biologists, though it is not a comprehensive review of the field. For that reason, I would not class it in the same category of “great” books such as Euclid’s Elements or Newton’s Principia. As far as understanding the history of the development of biology in the modern era, this is an essential book to read, and important for anyone wanting to sift the wheat from the chaff in terms of what Darwinism truly means.

My own conclusion from reading it is that Darwin would be aghast at the arrogance adopted by his successors in the advocacy of his theory, and the extent to which notions which he originated within the bounds of observable evidence have been stretched beyond their limit. I am thinking, here, particularly of Nietzsche’s idea of the superman and how that led to Aryanism and the Holocaust. While these ideas may have been seeded in Darwin’s work, I don’t doubt that Darwin himself would have regarded them as aberrant forms.