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Archive for the tag “Hannah Arendt”

What I Read in 2015

Reading is an activity subsequent to writing: more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.     J.L. Borges

Near the end of 2014 I made a spur of the moment decision to publish a list and commentary on all the books I had read the past year (which you can read here). This had a couple of unplanned benefits: it led me to posting more essays on my blog again after a two-year hiatus; and it helped me to better plan and maximize my reading time. For example, after making the 2014 list I noticed that there was only one female author, and that this was shamefully not out of the ordinary for me. I decided my first goal for 2015 would be to read many more books by women. I think you will see from the following list that I succeeded. This also led me to other unexpected avenues, such as many books by African authors, and also African-American authors. One of the many benefits of reading is that it can help you learn about, and empathize with, people from different backgrounds than yourself. For other benefits and a much longer reading list, take a look at this great article I came across by a librarian who read 164 books in 2015. I started 61 books this year, and finished all but six of them. That is nearly double the 33 or so books from the previous year, and still almost shocking how I even got this far considering my busy teaching schedule and my two-year-old twins that take up most of my time.

I have already reviewed some of the books on this list at length, and I would like to comment much more extensively on most of them, but that will have to be done individually in future posts. I tried to keep any comments here as short as possible for brevity’s sake. Unfinished books are marked with *, and sometimes reasons are given. My reading list for 2016 is already quite long and each book I encounter usually leads to several other books by the same or similar authors, all in the pursuit of what Nabokov termed the “Orphic thirst” of reading and rereading. I hope if you are reading this far you, too, will find some recommendations, and I would welcome any comments or other suggestions you have in the comments section. Without further ado, the list:

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Post-Apartheid South Africa, economical and unpredictable plot, typically precise writing from the 2003 Nobel Laureate

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

Important metaphorical novel about the relationship between Whites, Blacks, and land in Apartheid-era South Africa from the 1991 Nobel Laureate.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Out of AfricaSeven Gothic Tales* by Karen Blixen

Started my growing interest in reading more African-themed books this year.

The Sea, The SeaUnder the Net by Iris Murdoch

Very entertaining, philosophical, and memorable books in both cases by a prolific author and philosopher. The Sea, The Sea is one of my favorite books from this year; the setting itself was so evocative that it was almost a central character.

High Lonesome* by Joyce Carol Oates

Chosen nearly at random as my first entry into her endless works, read a good portion, technically well-written, but laid aside due to lack of interest in the characters and settings.

On Violence by Hannah Arendt

Very important perspective on political philosophy that I will write about more at a later date.

The Handmaid’s TaleThe PenelopiadThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

All three great, though the second is little more than a trifle. The Handmaid’s Tale is another of my favorites from this year and, as Harold Bloom comments in the preface, every bit as good and important a dystopian vision as 1984 and Brave New World.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

Very long and ambitious, but perhaps too much so by the 2007 Nobel Laureate. Difficult to finish. I most enjoyed the sections set in pre- and post-war Rhodesia, but not so much the section about Communist Party struggles in 50’s Britain.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Excellent all-around novel for its time and place, as it should be considering the near universal praise it always receives these days (Salman Rushdie being the sole exception). Great psychological depth to characters, and even the language was very stimulating for formal Victorian prose.

TypeeWhite-JacketMoby-DickThe Piazza Tales by Herman Melville

Looking back now it was a crime that I had never read Melville, and the recommendations by two separate people whose taste in literature I trust set me to remedying my omission. I quickly become a firmly convinced believer in Melville as the greatest American writer. Moby-Dick was the best book I read this year.

Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Herman Melville by Harold Bloom (editor)

He holds that Moby-Dick is the darkest of America’s three national epics (the other of which are Huckleberry Finn and Leaves of Grass). He also notes how fully four out of the six short novellas of The Piazza Tales are veritable masterpieces.

The White CastleMy Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Already written a review of these books here.

Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell

The second part of the Alexandria Quartet, filling in the gaps from where the first novel Justine, which I read last year, left off. I suspect I will read the third volume in the coming year and possibly the fourth.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Julian by Gore Vidal

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves

I already reviewed the three above novels of Ancient Rome here.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

After Memoirs of Hadrian, I chose this one randomly hoping that another French female writer named Marguerite would also be as good. I was disappointed, and if this one were not so short I would not have finished it.

Half of a Yellow SunAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I already reviewed these novels here.

Things Fall ApartNo Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe

This and the following seven authors all connect with the running African theme I followed this year.

Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka

Excellent play, especially appreciated the litany of Yoruba proverbs.

Weep Not, ChildWizard of the Crow* by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

The second of these, a funny and important satire on African dictators, is unfinished only due to its length, but I’ll come back to it next year.

The Sultan’s Dilemma by Tawfiq al-Hakim

Wonderful play, a sort of comedy of errors set in Mamluk-era Egypt.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

The Famished Road by Ben Okri

Incredibly dream-like story of a desperately impoverished family in the slums of Nigeria, won the 1991 Booker Prize.

Song of SolomonBeloved by Toni Morrison

This and the following three authors were all mentioned in my essay “Why Black Literature Matters

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Still incredible that the person who wrote this excellent and thoughtful memoirs became president; even a bit disappointing that he hasn’t been a better president considering this book.

Go Tell it on the MountainGiovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

The Roman Near East by Fergus Millar

A History of the Later Roman Empire: AD 284-641* by Stephen Mitchell

After finishing the three novels of Rome above, I wanted to catch up on a couple of pieces of academic historiography I had overlooked during my Master’s study in Ancient History.

Mongols and Mamluks: The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War, 1260-1281 by Reuven Amitai-Preiss

Research inspired by The Sultan’s Dilemma above.

Climbing: Philosophy for Everyone by Stephen Schmid (editor)

Light-weight philosophical essays discussing various ethical issues surrounding my favorite hobby–rock climbing.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

Very good and very funny social satire on 19th century Russian society; the first part is a masterpiece and much better than the second, which tends to repeat itself and lose narrative focus.

Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison

Three well-wrought and captivating novellas about tough everyman characters seeking revenge and getting the most out of their lives.

A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew Hefti

Debut novel to be published in January 2016 by my colleague at www.wrath-bearingtree.com; deeply-felt story about how two men’s lives changed after fighting in Iraq.

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton

Another Iraq veteran discusses the consequences of climate change on the human species and how we can possibly preserve some of our culture; my review of it will appear soon either here or on another website.

Daisy Miller; The Turn of the ScrewThe Aspern PapersThe Ambassadors*The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

All audiobooks during my commute; the first three are slow but rewarding novellas with precise subtlety of characterization and plot; The Ambassadors I could not finish due to lack of readily available plot; The Portrait of a Lady kept me interested just by its rich psychological character studies.

Pragmatism by William James

Not a particularly readable or convincing case from Henry’s older brother; I think Dewey and then Rorty is probably the better way to go with the “American” philosophy of Pragmatism.

Howard’s End by E.M. Forster

Great novel, a slightly better version of all of the Henry James above, but after all these (along with Middlemarch and Dead Souls), I will probably take a break in 2016 from 19th century or turn of the century dramas of the social and class divide, scheming matchmaking, and invisible servants.

Gilead* by Marilynne Robinson

Became interested after reading Obama’s interview with the author (and because of the shared name with the country in The Handmaid’s Tale); alas, it was too slow and uninteresting for me, which I’m sure is my fault more than the author’s.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Great example of how to use literature to mock dictators (the monstrous Trujillo, in this case) and learn about people from different backgrounds.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

More like a connected series of short stories than a novel; the first couple chapters were the best, but I began to lose interest by the second half due to generally unlikeable characters and more superficiality than I like in my books.

Kant’s Morality: Summary and Problems

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is one of the most important and influential modern philosophers. He was born in Königsberg, the ancient, seven-bridged Prussian capital which became, in 1945 (after deportation of most of the German population to the Gulag archipelago), the bizarre Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad. It is said that Kant never traveled further than 10 miles from his home town in all of his 79 years. It is also said that Kant, who was a lifelong bachelor and a caricatured embodiment of stern Prussian sensibilities, never deviated from his schedule by a single minute, so that local townsfolk could ‘set their watches’ by his daily walks. However unlikely (or apocryphal) these stories remain, they do not diminish the legacy Kant has left to the world of ideas. Considered somewhat of a ‘late-bloomer’, Kant’s first major work, the Critique of Pure Reason, appeared in 1781 when he was 47 years old. In this monumental treatise, he attempted to reconcile the empiricism (from experience) of David Hume with the tradition of idealistic philosophy, by way of his new definition of the capabilities of knowledge derived from ‘pure reason’ alone.

I am more interested in examining the basis of morality Kant describes in a short follow-up work, the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, first published in 1785. This work first described his idea of the ‘categorical imperative’, which would be dealt with in much more detail in his next major work, the Critique of Practical Reason.

First, Kant presupposes that there is a moral law. That is, there exists some basis for morality beyond subjective description of it. He then begins with a series of identifications to answer how the moral law possibly gives a pure abstract form of a moral law that will ask if it is really moral. He says the only good thing that exists without qualifications is a good will (or good intentions). Other things may bring goodness, but always with qualifications. For example, happiness is a good thing in itself, but if there is a qualification that a happiness could be caused by harming someone, it is no longer good. Or perhaps we could say that someone is very ‘good’ at making money, but this does not necessarily imply overall ‘goodness’ (in the case of Wall Street banks, for example). This is a somewhat circular argument, in that he says that what is inherently ‘good’ (or moral) is a ‘good will’. He, thus, further defines it as: a good will acts for the sake of duty alone. In other words, a good will does the right thing only for the reason that it is the right thing, and for no other reason. Not for happiness, personal gain, personal inclination, but only because it is ‘the right thing to do’. Kant sees this duty to ‘do the right thing’ as a triumph of reason in the struggle over superstition.

But what is ‘good will’? And how can we know what our ‘duty’ is? And will there be problems with always doing this ‘duty’, no matter the extenuating circumstances? Well, Kant begins to answer these questions with another circular argument, saying that ‘duty’ is when someone acts in accordance with the ‘moral law’. This does not appear to clear up the confusion at all, if duty is defined by moral law, and vice versa, and we’re back where we started from. Kant continues, however, by proposing a solution in the form of a universal moral law that can be inserted as a sort of formula to determine the correctness of any particular action. This solution is called the ‘categorical imperative’.

The categorical imperative can be basically defined as “Always act so that you can will the rule of your action to be a universal law.” It is ‘categorical’ because it is not ‘hypothetical’ or ‘contingent’ on anything, but is always and everywhere ‘universal’. That is, there is no “if” clause to any moral act, but only the imperative clause (*not: you should do X if Y; but: you should do X!). It is called an ‘imperative’ because it is a command, not an option. So this means that, for every action you perform, you could potentially create a universal rule based on that action. Your action and the universal rule would be equally true and representative of ‘goodness’, or morality.

The categorical imperative must meet these demands: it must be universal and without restrictions; and it must be reversible. There are no proper names or group distinctions allowed in any context of a moral rule, either to attribute with praise or with blame. There are no unique exceptions, and it can be applied on a universal level to everyone equally.

Kant draws four principles from the categorical imperative.

  • The first is the ‘ends’ principle, that says, “Always treat others, and yourself, as though you were an ‘end’, and never a ‘means’. Basically, don’t use other people!
  • Secondly, “We must always act under the practical postulate that our will is free.” Don’t make excuses or refuse to act because you think that your actions will not make a difference. It is ‘practical’ because our everyday decisions are borne out as a result of our free will, and because we recognize that our actions result from such practical decisions.
  • Thirdly, “Always act so that you can regard your own will as making universal law.” This means that when we decide how to act in a given situation and choose the action (with our free, autonomous will), we would want everyone else to act just as we did. The autonomy of this decision leads to personal responsibility, and excludes any other reason to act that was not from our own free will. For example, if God himself ordered you to do something, and you followed the command, it would not be moral because it was not derived from your own free will. Morality comes only from the decisions you make, and not from decisions that are made for you by others. (For what it’s worth, Kant, like many Enlightenment thinkers, was a Deist, and believed that Reason alone was our most important attribute).
  • Finally, Kant says that “Human capacity to be a moral agent gives each human dignity.”  This dignity gives unconditional worth to every human being. In this last principle, Kant understands that there is the possibility (or ‘capacity’) for anyone to act morally, and describes what this action would look like in practice. It explains why we are hesitant to try to put a value on a person’s life, and why most people would refuse to even attempt such a thing. Money, in this case, would introduce a ‘conditional’ value that is not permitted in Kant’s view.

With these four principles, Kant describes how a moral individual would act using the categorical imperative. If there is to be something called ‘morality’, this is what it would look like according to Kant. If all individuals acted this way in accordance with his principles, there would result what he calls a “Kingdom of Ends.” In this kingdom, everyone would treat everyone else as an ‘end’ rather than as a ‘means’, and everyone would grant everyone else his own autonomy or free will. This kingdom would be one in which no one gets ‘used’ by anyone else. This is the end-state result of Kant’s morality, and one which he believes would lead to universal peace. If everyone on earth thought the same way as Kant, this might be true.

An objection to this system was first raised during Kant’s lifetime. The objection pertains to Kant’s assertion that telling the truth must be universal, and that lying cannot be considered ‘moral’ in any contingency or circumstance. For the sake of argument, using extreme examples is the clearest way to make a point or find a weakness. In this case, then, imagine that a group of Nazis comes to your door and asks if you are hiding any Jews, or if you know the location of any Jews. You are hiding a family of Jews in a secret basement. Do you answer truthfully to the Nazis, or do you lie to them in order to save the Jewish family? I think almost all of us would assert that we would lie to them, believing that the lie was based on benevolent concerns that outweigh the supposed morality of the universal ‘truth-telling’ imperative. Kant, however, denied that this apparent contradiction proved any inconsistency with his original formulation of the ‘moral law’. According to him, moral actions do not derive their value from the expected consequences (in this case, presumably saving the Jewish family, or sending them to their doom), and that it is required to tell the truth to the Nazis. If we lie for any reason, or for any expected outcome, we are only treating the recipient of the lie (in this case, the Nazis) as a ‘means’ to another ‘end’, which denies the rationality of the other person and, thus, denies the possibility of the existence of rational free will at all.

Another objection to Kant’s main argument here is that it depends on what someone is willing to ‘will’ to be a universal law. So, in the case of the Nazis, would we be willing to ask them if they considered their actions to be moral (from a corresponding universal law), and to accept their answer? When the Nazi in question inevitably replies ‘yes’, Kant’s only reply is to say that this is not the act of a rational moral agent. The universal nature of Kant’s formulation means that it is only stated on the most general level, without any specific content or qualification of certain situations (which are, of course, disqualified from being ‘universal’). Kant seems to have created a system of ‘fairness’, but one which is not usually ‘practical’ for real moral decision-making. This is especially true when we try to consider the ‘right’ thing to do in regards to other factors that influence decisions in real life, such as our human relationships, family, race, class, nationality, etc.

Therefore, drawing on the two objections stated above, we can easily imagine many likely negative outcomes from following the ‘categorical imperative’. A person who either believes he is following his ‘moral duty’ as based on a universal law, or who believes he is following his own personal ‘morality’, could be empowered to commit any number of atrocities that would have conceivably be prevented without the presence of the person’s ‘false’ universal moral law. For example, in the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt describes how the captured Nazi leader stated that he had only been doing his ‘duty’ by facilitating the massacre of the Jews. Eichmann implied that he had at least attempted to live his life based on his idea of morality as given through the categorical imperative, and led to what Arendt called ‘the banality of evil’. Another instance in which we can imagine such as thing is the case of religious extremists who believe in the supposed universality of the ‘moral laws’ dictated by their holy books or the clerics who teach them, that they are willing to commit horrible acts of murder and even suicide in the name of what they believe (quite strongly, obviously) to be a universal moral law.

With such practical objections apparently sounding the death knell (or perhaps, the ‘knell’ in the coffin) of Kant’s idea of morality, we must look further into these questions to decide where he went wrong. Does there really even exist an idea of universal morality, or is it something that humans invent and construct based on our present knowledge and understanding of the world and human nature? Are there better systems of morality we can discover or describe, and is there anything we can salvage from Kant’s system? In order to attempt to answer these questions as much as possible, and to attempt to find a practical system of morality that works in our own society, it is necessary to first examine the competing idea of ‘Utilitarianism’ formulated by Jeremy Bentham and described most famously by John Stuart Mill, which will be the subject of my next post.

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