Category Archives: Other non-fiction

Other non-fiction books I read

Book Review: The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek

Disclaimer: This is published under the Routledge Classics label, an imprint of Taylor & Francis, which is a wholly owned Division of the company that, at the time of reading and reviewing, I work for. I bought it at retail price and was not asked to review it by anyone I work with. As ever, I review it of my own volition and the opinions expressed here are wholly my own and should not be taken as indicative of the publisher or the parent company.

At the start of the year, I wrote a blog piece about books that would challenge my worldview. This was one I chose myself, rather than having it suggested to me by anyone else. Known as one of the fathers of neoliberalism, Hayek’s economics stand is stark contrast to my kind socialism. And I am a firm believer that one should, from time to time, read and engage with those who hold a vastly different opinions than you do.

Hayek’s opening premise is one that is a distinct product of his time. The Road to Serfdom was first published in 1944. As such, many of the horrors of fascist Germany were known to the world. An Austrian by birth, Hayek was living and working in England at the time. His opening assertion is that the rise of fascism was the natural outcome of socialism in Germany. He is here issuing a warning that England is in danger of following along the same path.

He speaks of socialism as having, as its essential feature, the idea of planning. i.e. that central government decides what needs to be done and then plans to do it. This view rather misses the point. He mistakes process for outcome. In order for the realisation of a socialist society (i.e. one where people are paid fairly, where none are left behind, where people are treated fairly instead of being exploited and where those who gain from the benefits of living in a civilised world pay their fair share of taxes) it is inevitable that some planning is necessary. But Hayek is too short-sighted and sees only the planning, not the goal. It like saying that the construction of a block of flats is all about cranes and heavy lifting. There is some truth in that, insofar as it is the means, but it omits from the narrative the idea that there will be homes where people will eventually live.

While it is absolutely right that any number of political/economic systems should come under scrutiny, there are further flaws in Hayek’s reasoning. Implicit in his writing that there are two possible systems: liberalism and socialism. He frequently puts capitalism into scare quotes, implying that there’s no such thing. This seems to be because he so keen to appropriate the positive connotations of the word ‘liberal’ that he wishes to push aside other, more accurate terms, in favour of a terminology that puts his own views in the most rosey light. In so doing he sets up the logical fallacy of a false dichotomy. He posits these two ideals and attempts to trash one, thus leaving only one left – Hayek’s neoliberalism. Yet this in itself is assumed by default. It is an early example of the ide of TINA (There Is No Alternative), yet the consequences of neoliberalism are not adequately explored in Hayek’s work. Like a mediocre chess player he considers possible moves, rules each one out in turn and opts for the one he has thought about the least, not examined with the same critical eye that he has applied to the others.

Hayek is, in effect, telling us a ghost story. It is the story of how evil has come to rise, and it is because of certain views that have been held in the past. Like John the baptiser, he calls us to repent of our socialist ways and make straight the way for free enterprise. But Hayek’s messiah is not Jesus, it is a certain kind of freedom. It is the freedom for any individual to do as they please. Here, he comes up with the ultimate statement of laissez-faire fundamentalism: “It is necessary in the first instance that the parties in the market should be free to sell and buy at any price at which they can find a partner to the transaction, and that anybody should be free to produce, sell, and buy anything that may be produced or sold at all.”

Wow, that sounds good doesn’t it? Yes. Until you think about it. If followed through, there is nothing here to prevent a manufacturer from making weapons of mass destruction and selling them to terrorist organisations or hostile governments, providing they pay the right fee. There’s nothing here to prevent the sale of narcotics to children, if they’ve got the cash on them and can negotiate a price amenable to all. There’s nothing here that protects the rights of workers, ensuring that they are given a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work or any legal protection as to whether they can rely on the ongoing nature of their employment.

Another underlying assumption that the kind of liberty Hayek is so desperate for exists and is readily attainable.

Here are just a few more quotes that demonstrate the paucity of Hayek’s thinking:

On individualism:

“…recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends, the belief that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions, that forms the essence of the individualist position.”

Here, Hayek shows his contempt for the rule of law. It’s no different in substance from the philosophy of Sheryl Crow (“If it make you happy, it can’t be that bad”).

On property & privilege:

“It would indeed be privilege if, for example, as has sometimes been the case in the past, landed property were reserved to members of the nobility. And it is privilege if, as is true in our time, the right to produce or sell particular things is reserved to particular people designated by authority. But to call private property as such, which all can acquire under the same rules, a privilege,  because only some succeed in acquiring it, is depriving the word privilege of its meaning.”

This misses the point by an almost unbelievable amount. We may have the same rules, but not all have the same means. Private property remains (and possibly more so than ever) the reserve the richest elite in the country. I’ve written before on the generational gap that those under the age of 34 will possibly never be able to own their own home.

Probably no part of the book turned my stomach as when Hayek came onto the subject of inequality. In it, he states that a person who loses their job out of sheer misfortune is bound to feel less hard done by than someone who has had their job taken away from because of the actions of the state. That may have some truth in it, but if we dig under the surface we find a level of denialism firstly that the state may be the provider of jobs and secondly that private enterprise is ever in any way at fault for causing people to become unemployed. It is merely attributed to market forces. Further, Hayek states a flat contradiction to a statement of Jesus that “the worker deserves his wages”. What Hayek proposes is that if a person, employed to do a job, does it, only for the end product to, for some reason or other, be rendered redundant, then the worker should not be paid. In other words, the worker should bear the cost of the labour, while his employer takes no financial hit. This is an idea that I find morally repugnant and should be shunned by any person who takes seriously the idea that workers should be treated with dignity and fairness.

Hayek acknowledges that his form of economic liberalism will inevitably result in ineqaulity. In effect, though, he says “[tough titty]” to this, as it is of little consequence compared to the dangers inherent in striving for a fairer society. For in Hayek’s view there is no such thing as moderation; any economic planning that is designed to curb the increase in, or reverse, inequality must be wholly totalitarian and therefore the temptation to go down this route must be resisted. In effect, Hayek holds the liberty of the individual to do act as they want is the highest, most sacrosanct of all things, and that inequality is a justifiable expense of maintaining this freedom, even if it is the freedom of the individual to economically oppress another.

In a chapter entitled ‘The End of Truth’, Hayek puts forward the idea of the power within narratives and that such narratives may be constructed as a post hoc rationalisation for the prejudices which one holds. In this, he is quite correct and I understand the theme was later picked up by the philosopher Mary Midgely in The Myths We Live By. For example, he states, “The need to rationalise the likes and dislikes which, for lack of anything else, must guide the planner in many of his decisions, and the necessity of stating his reasons in a form in which they will appeal to as many people as possible, will force him to construct theories, i.e. assertions about the connections between facts, which then become an integral part of the governing doctrine.”

Hayek is here speaking of the speck in the eye of his opponents. But the log is own eye is just around the corner. It is somewhat apt that immediately following ‘The End of Truth’ we catch Hayek doing exactly what he has just warned about. For he rationalises his dislike of socialists by stating, in ways that are designed to appeal to many, a theory that socialism is at the heart of Nazism. This is indeed the heart of Hayek’s doctrine. In so doing, he makes the foolish mistake that many on the right still make, by supposing that because the German regime was called National Socialism, that that is demonstrative of what socialism is. Such thinking would also lead one to look to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a model of democracy. It is sheer idiocy.

As he tries to make his case, one will note some absurd statements. For example:

“”The ideas of 1789″ – Liberty, Equality Fraternity – are characteristically commercial ideals which have no other purpose but to secure certain advantages to individuals.”

This displays a crass ignorance of the French Revolution. Equality is one of the things that Hayek denounces over and over in this work. As for fraternity, that is by no means a bad thing, but it is the very opposite of the individualism which is the hallmark of the society Hayek wishes to build. It should be plain by now to the reader that Hayek’s view of liberty is a rather warped one indeed; a kind of liberty where one individual or corporation should not be prohibited from economically oppressing another individual, a community or even a democracy.

“To regard war as inhuman and senseless is a product of commercial views.”

Frankly, this bullshit. To regard war as inhuman and senseless is a product of humanity and sense. Loss of life is far more important than loss of profit, but Hayek seems not to have grasped this.

In what passes for analysis, such non-sequiters are not in isolation. Though it is interesting to note what Hayek doesn’t say as what he does. In his account of the rise of Nazism, the figure of Hitler is barely mentioned. Neither are the crippling war reparations that were imposed on Germany after the first world war. Nor is there any sign of the great depression. These are all vital factors that any reasonable person would need to consider amongst the many circumstances of history, culture and geography that saw the rise of the Third Reich. So why might Hayek have missed them out? It seems that he has already found his scapegoat: socialists. Those democratically minded lovers of justice and equality must have been the cause of the the totalitarian, evil regime, convinced of its own superiority over other races that the 20th century ever witnessed.

These are but only a glimpse of the flaws in Hayek’s thinking.

So what became of his fears? Ultimately, Hayek was proved to be wrong. His warnings weren’t heeded and Labour ended up leading a socialist government after the end of the second world war, just a couple of years after Hayek wrote his thesis. Did this result in the inevitable slide into totalitarianism? No. It resulted in the most progressive government this country saw in the 20th century. It kick-started the rebuilding of the country, established the welfare state and the National Health Service, under the leadership of Clement Attlee and with the vision of Nye Bevan. It wasn’t really until the 1980s, under Thatcher, that we really saw the outplay of Hayek’s philosophy, though usually through the lens of Friedman. Mass privatisation and deregulation of the markets sowed the seeds for the 2008 crash, the biggest economic failure since Hayek’s time, which came about not because of socialist planning, but because of the neoliberal lack of good governance and oversight that is dismissed as “big government”.

So read Hayek, not because he speaks a warning from history, but because he is a warning from history. Sadly, it is a history that is still being played out today.

Book Review: Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

Readers of this blog with a good memory will recall this I picked this up at a bookshop around Crystal Palace/Gipsy Hill back in February after having walked some way to get there. During some of the summer following I continued to walk some of the South Downs Way and began on the North Downs Way. So I decided to read Solnit’s work, which I understood to be a collection of essays, on the subject of walking. Indeed, the book carries the subtitle ‘A History of Walking’. In a few other works I’ve picked up on the subject, Solnit is constantly referred to.

I must note that the editors put in a lovely touch. The book is printed in fairly small print, so the reader is forced to take their time, almost squinting at the page, in order to read. This slows the reader and evokes the slowing to a walking pace from the rush of everyday life. At the bottom of every page there is a quote in some way related to walking. But they are not restricted to a single page, some run over for a few pages, as they only include one per page, in what looks like an old fashioned share price ticker. So as you read the text, underneath it is a steady stream of words of beauty that evoke the feeling of walking by a river, with the words flowing like the water.

What of the content of the book?

Solnit’s work covers a huge range of subjects, which one might not expect for a book about walking, but it is a fascinating and enlightening work, written with prose of the highest calibre. She covers the romantic poets (in particular Wordsworth), the peripatetic philosophers, urbanisation, the flaneurs (check spelling) of Paris, walking as a leisure activity, as an act of protest (e.g. through Reclaim The Streets), an act of pilgrimage, as art and a whole host of other things. It is so wide-ranging, it’s quite staggering that one person could so confidently and adroitly write with such wit and grace on these, intertwined with her own reflections on some personal encounters while walking in the western United States.

This may all sound rather gushing, as though I had lost all my critical senses, but let me assure that such high praise is well deserved. From page to page, one has (in the proper sense of the word) an apocalypse, an unveiling of a world we may have been faintly aware was there, but which is revealed to us now in splendid glory. I thought I liked walking and am generally regarded as “a walker” but I can see that I have had such a narrow definition that it seems hardly anyone can be. My walking is restricted to a little urban travel when I have the time, some long distance paths in sunny weather and the occasional protest.

In reading through the book, there are some paths we wander down several times. The one most frequently trod is the one marked ‘social history’, but there are other than are near parallel such as ‘politics’ and ‘culture’, while at times we may go off in other directions entirely. Yet with this range of topics, there is a risk that the book could lack cohesion, but it doesn’t. It all hangs together as one. Given the small print, and the fact that it runs for some 300 pages, it’s not a thin book to read over the course of a weekend. It is a book to be savoured.

I probably ought to add that from the time I started to the time I finished, I covered about 55 miles (a little over half) of the North Downs Way. Since starting the book, I’ve taken to collecting a few more volumes of walking literature, as Wanderlust has given me a real taste for the genre. In particular, I look forward to The Old Ways and A Philosophy of Walking.

Book Review: Hegel – A Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer

In a few of the books I’ve read recently, most notably Das Kapital and Theology of Hope, the figure of Hegel has loomed large. Yet it any discussion on him always comes across as esoteric and rather impenetrable for this reader, untrained in philosophy. Without diving straight into his works, it seemed more appropriate to read about him, with a book designed for a beginner. So what could be more appropriate than a Very Short Introduction?

We begin with a look at Hegel’s life. One instantly gets confirmation of a likely suspicion: Hegel’s work is heavily shaped by (both in agreement with and as a reaction to) Kant’s philosophy. Having not read Kant or much about his thought, this would seem to be an instant hamstring. Perhaps I should come back to Kant later. The other figure that Kant wishes to highlight is Friedrich Schiller, whose own critiques of Kant may be thought of as mirroring Hegel’s, but that the history of philosophy has looked on Schiller unfavourably, with Hegel emerging as the more memorable of the two.

Singer’s look at Hegel’s own thought begins with The Philosophy of History. The key point I picked up from it was that Hegel viewed history as a progression towards a state of liberty. It is hinted at, though not stated explicitly, that Hegel viewed his own contemporary German state as the culmination of that progress. Singer looks at a few civilisations through Hegel’s eyes, to show us how he reached this view.

The question then arises as to what is meant by liberty. To do this, we get a précis of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Singer is quick to point out that this is not a matter of right as in ‘right and wrong’; i.e. a study of ethics. But rather it concerns rights, a matter of political philosophy. Hegel reacted against the idea of liberty as the ability to do what one pleases, viewing this not as the greatest height of humanity, but as an immature dream. I couldn’t help but think that maybe Friedrich Hayek would have been wise to heed these words. Indeed, the discussion quickly moves to one of economics, where, having referenced him earlier, one cannot but think of Karl Marx.

Moving onto the motion of community, Singer takes us on a tour of Hegel’s view of planned and unplanned ways of living. At this point, I admit I got a bit lost in Singer’s explanation, so goodness knows how hopeless I’d be at trying to get a grasp on the source material of Hegel’s writings on the subject!

Halfway through the book, Singer unleashes on us the following: “It is time to confess: I have been cheating. My account of Hegel’s philosophy so far has carefully omitted of mention of something that Hegel himself refers to repeatedly and regards as crucial: the idea of Geist.” Thus we see that what has been spoken of so far has only partially dealt with the works those chapters purport to. So it is that we then have to look at Hegel’s Phenomenology, starting with whether Geist is better translated as ‘spirit’ or ‘mind’. Singer takes the view that ‘spirit’ sounds too religious and, notwithstanding Hegel’s Lutheran tendencies, is too misleading, preferring ‘mind’ instead.

Without having studied Hegel, I think Singer did a pretty good job here. It hasn’t made me an expert, but I think I got the gist of it (pun intended).

Finally, and almost reluctantly, we get onto Logic and Hegel’s work on dialectics (not to be mistaken for dianetics!). For it is here that I first got a bit lost at the start of Das Kapital. Beginning from a classical view of dialectics as going to and fro with ideas, Singer tells us that Hegel’s view is much more systematised, starting with a thesis, countered with an antithesis before finally the two come together in the form a synthesis, which then in turn becomes the next starting point. i.e. the next thesis.

Throughout the second half of the book, with particular reference to the notions of Geist and dialectics, Singer refers us back to the first part, showing the reader more explicitly what was hinted at before, or showing us that a particular example (e.g. the mind recognising another mind that is not itself, as a means of recognising that it is a mind) fits the models that are explored in the latter part.

The afterword of the book gives the reader a taste of where to go next, by looking at Hegel’s legacy. Singer’s view is that the more conservative take on Hegel’s work (which emphasises his later writings) died a death in a cul-de-sac, while the more radical take (exemplified by Feuerbach and Marx) flourished, understanding Hegel’s later work as a failure to follow through with his earlier ideas, seeking to rework them. An offshoot of this that grabbed my idea was David Friedrich Strauss’ Life of Jesus which I haven’t read yet, but which I know was a work against which Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus was partly a response. A thesis and antithesis, if you will.

Overall, I think Singer met the brief very well. It may be some time before I come to read any of Hegel’s own works, but I think if he comes up again in my other reading, I have here something of a handle to hold onto to help me understand what more modern thinkers are saying about him and his work. So if you have started in the same position as me (see first paragraph) then I would definitely recommend this little book to you as a useful overview.

Book Review: Art Theory – A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland

It’s sometimes good to pick up a book on a subject you know next to nothing about, just to try to get an early handle on it and immerse yourself in its world. This was my thinking when, having spotted a bookshop attached to an art gallery in Whitechapel, London, I spotted this Very Short Introduction (VSI). My only prior exposure to art theory was during a conversation with an art student when we were both at sixth form college. Here, she claimed that art was whatever an artist said was art. She followed up by saying that an artist was anyone who considered themselves to be one. Being keen on logic and wanting to bust her bubble via a reductio ad absurdum, I stated that I was an artist and that my poking her in the shoulder was a piece of art. It was done in jest, but for me it was a perfectly justified reaction against art theory as she portrayed it to me.

Onto the book. Freeland chooses, as seems fitting, to illustrate her work through example. Now the body of art in the world is far too great for any single work to do justice to, so Freeland is forced to limit her choice to just a few works. One of these in particular is given prominence as the lens through which she views the subject: Piss Christ by Andres Serrano. It is through this, and other works like Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (the shark in formaldehyde) that Freeland explores the question of aesthetics. Are these things beautiful? Freeland gives a brief survey of the philosophy of aesthetics, with a particular emphasis on the ideas of Kant. Her conclusion is that “Art includes not just works of formal beauty to be enjoyed by people with ‘taste’, or works with beauty and uplifting moral messages, but also works that are ugly and disturbing, with a shatteringly negative moral content.”

From here, we get a whistle-stop tour of various different kinds of art, all the way along questioning what it is that makes it art. What are the common themes and what are the differences. In particular, the idea of intent seems to be paramount. This is illustrated through looking at some of the pop art works of Andy Warhol. What made his version Brillo Boxes art while the commercially available equivalent isn’t?

When it comes to looking at a variety of cultures, Freeland asks the reader to face some uncomfortable questions. What for one culture is an expression of their identity may be taken as a quaint form of “tribal art” for another culture. This has given rise to an industry of such art that may have originated in particular cultural or religious expression, but later has become little more than a commercialised fulfilment of an imperialist fetish.

This naturally leads on to issues of money and how capitalism corrupts the art world. Fighting against this is the idea of public art; that which should be available for all the public to experience in whatever form the art takes, typically visual. There’s a brief history of the changing natures of museums here which was cut short for it to fit into this volume, but could easily have been expanded into a much larger chapter, as the treatment is all too brief.

One of the themes that has long permeated art, but which is particularly highlighted in modern art is the act of subversion and how art becomes a tool of that subversion. This is a subject Freeland examines through a few lenses, but in particular that of feminism. There are other lenses that have could have been used more extensively, but I think that in using the feminist angle, she was angling for an approach that would appeal to as wide a liberal audience (for that is who she seems to be writing for) as she could hope for. So it was a little ironic that in what should have been the most controversial chapter, she chose potentially the safest option.

So what does it all mean?

Here, we move to what I thought seemed to be the heart of the subject: how do we interpret art? It seems that any artist must have some idea of what it is that they want to convey and the viewer of the art is intended to receive a message. But unlike the written word, visual art (for in Freeland’s world, literature doesn’t really seem to count as art) can have “fuzzy edges”. What we then get is a rundown of various theories as to how the message is conveyed. If a viewer understands one thing, is it “right”? Is meaning generated in the mind of the viewer or can the artist turn around and tell them they’ve no right to interpret their art in that manner?

Towards the end of the book, we come right up to modernity, with an examination of the digital revolution and how art can be made available for all. It is worth questioning the future of the art galleries given that a click of a few buttons, we can see versions of the great works of visual art on our computer screens.

There was a satisfying moment I had whilst reading it one lunchtime as the book mentioned the very art gallery in Whitechapel where I bought the book.

I’ve come away from the book with the beginnings of an education. I think that’s the best that one could reasonably hope for. The book could have been a lot different if different examples were cited, as the world is full of art of a wide variety. I’m not sure I’ll take up art more seriously in the near future, but if you’re vaguely interested then I would certainly recommend this work to you. As I’ve tried to hint at in this review, there are lots of questions, so it’s certainly a book to make you think; and that can hardly be a bad thing.

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: The Early History of Rome (books 1-5) by Livy

Since finishing The Nicomachean Ethics, this has been my ‘long, slow book‘ that I have read just a few pages at a time. Having last year read The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction I wanted to read more of the primary material that underlay that greatly enjoyable start to the subject. It also felt like something of a resumption of ancient history after having, in the last couple of years, read both Herodotus and Thucydides.

If you know anything about the foundation of Rome, then you will have heard of Romulus and Remus and how they were raised by wolves. This is pretty much at the start of Livy’s work, though one should note the introduction by R. M. Ogilvie. I probably ought to add, since there are multiple versions, that this was the Penguin Classics edition translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. It’s rare for me to comment on the faithfulness of a translation, though here I couldn’t help but notice the appearance of some seemingly anachronistic idioms cropping up in the text. Seeming quite out of place and out of tone with the rest of the work, I do query whether this was the most faithful rendering of Livy’s work.

The opening of the book reads rather more like a work of mythology rather than history. The story of Romulus and Remus is fleshed out in a little detail, yet they were all too fleeting in their appearance, particularly Remus who was murdered by his brother. From here we read a little about an early period where Rome was ruled by kings, many of whom were corrupt or incompetent, so we see the seeds of a resentment of monarchy. A running theme throughout the foundation of the republic is the desire to have competent government and resisting the temptation to return to monarchy nomatter how bad things got.

Much of the book is very reminiscent of the History of the Peloponnesian War as we just get battle, death, rebuttal and a little political insight into how the early Romans organised themselves. With tribunes, consuls, military tribunes and the dastardly group known as the Decemvirs there is a fair array of models of governance on display, though without a detailed political theory, there is some ambiguity over the precise constitution. The other feature is that as seemed to happen all too frequently, in times of crisis, they would dissolve the republican model of government and appoint a dictator whose decisions could not be challenged. The idea seems to be that a single person’s choices are more readily made than a consensus. If one is familiar with later Roman history, you will be aware that the last person to hold this position was one Gaius Julius, or as he is more often referred to, Julius Caesar – the first emperor; a dictator who never gave up his position.

The most interesting parts are certainly towards the front of the book, with various episodes recounted which have seeped into later collective consciousness and re-imagined by later writers. I think in particular of the rape of Lucretia and the account of Coriolanus, the latter being adapted into a play by William Shakespeare.

That said, the end of the book (that is, book 5 of Livy’s work, the end of this volume) sets up nicely the next part of Livy’s work, in that we get an introduction to the Gauls, who are described as being quite unlike any other enemy Rome has faced and where the entire existence of the city is not only under threat, but seemingly doomed.

It’s a shame really, because while it does hint at a certain level of interest in reading on, I must confess that I think I have just about reached the end of my tether when it comes to reading the source material of ancient history. I still have a copy of Tacitus’ Histories on my bookshelf, waiting to be read, as well as a later summary: Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I don’t think I take as much from reading the early works as others with a keener interest in history. So while I pondered Plutarch, I think that will have to wait for some considerable time.

To conclude then, this is not a book for the casual reader (a category in which I place myself). It’s more for those who have an abnormal desire to dig into the origins of Roman history, but who probably already have a good understanding of the overall period, gleaned from later historians and summarisers. If that sounds like you, then absolutely do read it. You can even have my (by now, slightly dog-eared) copy.

Book Review: The Koran – A Very Short Introduction by Michael Cook

I read the Koran once when I was a teenager, but did so with no guidance and just went through it cover to cover. It seemed rather disjointed, with some oddly worded concepts and what I considered to be perversions of stories from the Old Testament. The one that stuck in my mind was a re-telling of the story of the garden of Eden, where the serpent of Genesis became Satan (or Shai’tan as I think it may have been rendered) and prompted me to wonder whether this was the impetus for christian theologians to make that identification or whether it was earlier, even if it is commonplace in most expressions of christianity today. Yet I haven’t touched the book since then. At some point, I may come back, though I wonder how one might review it on this blog.

In approaching this book, then, in the hope that it will go someway to filling a hole of ignorance. Already, one may think it wrong to refer to the Koran as opposed to the Qur’an. In his introduction, Cook states that while Qur’an is the more faithful rendering, Koran is readily recognised as an anglicised form that lends itself to a correct stressing of the syllables. As this is the way Cook refers to it, then so shall this review.

The manner in which Cook approaches the book is unlikely to be one that people expect. He works roughly in a sort of anti-chronology, looking at the modern usages of the Koran, moving back in time to tell its story. Though at times, this timeline gets a bit jumbled, that seems to be in order to avoid the exposition itself becoming jumbled. In case it needs highlighting, this is the VSI of the book of the Koran, it is not a VSI of Islam. If that it was you’re looking for, then this is not the right book for you.

We begin by considering what the notion of ‘scripture’ is and what the overall message of the Koran tries to tell us. The emphasis Cook brings out is that of the straight path and the nature of God (though I did wonder why Cook referred to God, rather than Allah).

After this introduction, we get to see how the Koran is used today and its influence, which is quite evident to many if you either live in an area where there is a high Muslim population or by putting on the news. Yet the disparity between these two is clear and not a little confusing for the non-Muslim. Such misunderstanding can give birth to Islamophobia.

After looking at how the Koran is communicated (both as a written text and as a self-contained oral tradition in and of itself), there’s a general discussion as to what it means for any text to be regarded as “scripture”. Of course, any writing is, etymologically scripture. Even this blog is; but that’s not the common usage of the word, which tends to denote some sacred text of a religion. Contrasts are drawn between the Koran and some of the Vedas, though to many a reader, especially christians like me, the comparisons to the bible are rather thin and it left me feeling a little flat.

One of the bits that didn’t seem to make a lot of sense was the idea of coloured text. There is talk of it, but as the book is published in black & white, apart from the cover, then one cannot tell about the red and gold punctuation marks. It was only when I visited the British Library’s collection of Koran’s that this became clear.

What we don’t get is one clear story of how the Koran is said to have come about. There are hints here and there, but the whole story of Mohammad being told to read is rather lost in amongst the other chapters, partly as the story of where he was when various bits of the Koran were revealed.

Overall, it is a useful VSI, though I can’t say it was particularly memorable. I’m publishing this review some time after having finished it and find myself having to keep opening it to remind myself of the book’s contents. It’s one to keep and refer to, yet I couldn’t help but think there are better introductions available.