zenpundit.com » reader response

Archive for the ‘reader response’ Category

Thucydides Roundtable Addendum: Cleon Revisited

Friday, November 4th, 2016

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

After posting about “The Most Violent Man at Athens“, commenter Neville Morely who is a professor of the classics, brought it to my attention that he recently offered a qualified defense of the populist Athenian politician, Cleon.  I thought that this would serve as an excellent rebuttal to my post that would interest and inform the readership. So, without further ado, Professor Morely:

Cleon and the Lying Media

Another day, another classical Trump analogy – or rather, a reiteration of one that’s already somewhat familiar, Trump as Cleon, put forward this time by G.W. Bowersock in the New York Review of Books. I have to say that, the more I see this comparison, the more I think it’s deeply unfair to Cleon, and reproduces an old-fashioned view of Athenian democracy that is based largely on sources hostile to the whole thing. Of course we don’t expect classical analogies to be based on detailed historical insight – I don’t have much to add on this point to Donna Zuckerberg’s ‘Make Comparison Great Again’ – but there are definitely bad and worse cases, evocations of the ancient world for present political and polemical purposes that are deeply dodgy rather than just moderately dubious.

At best, what this offers us is the pantomime villain whom we can boo and hiss with a sense of smugness that we have a superior idea of how bad he really is. But this one seems riskier than normal, if it slides easily into the belief that the emergence of such a figure is also a judgement against the system that has allowed him to rise to prominence. That’s precisely how Thucydides and Aristophanes (the lying MainsSteam Media) present Cleon, as evidence of the negative tendencies of Athenian democracy that headed downhill from there; is there a sense that Trump, even as he denounces American institutions, is also fuelling a suspicion of those institutions among some of his fiercest critics? Yes, there may be a case for that – but it shouldn’t be a case based on this arguable interpretation of the relationship between Cleon and Athens.

I may return to this theme in more detail – currently supposed to be working on a paper on a completely different topic for tomorrow evening – but for the moment, it suddenly occurred to me that I’ve already developed these ideas nearly twenty years ago in a piece for Omnibus called ‘Cleon the Misunderstood’ (can’t remember whether I put a question mark after that in the original). I’d certainly update this today with more discussion of how Cleon gets read in relation to Thucydides’ trustworthiness – George Grote’s criticism of the portrayal, and the academic row that ensued – but I think this stands up well enough as a summary to be worth reproducing here:

Cleon the Misunderstood

In the mid-fourth century B.C., an Athenian citizen called Mantitheus sued his half-brother for the return of his mother’s dowry. At one point in the speech, he tells the jury that his mother had once been married to a man called Cleomedon,

Whose father Cleon, we are told, commanded troops among whom were your ancestors, and captured alive a large number of Spartans, and won greater renown than any other man in the state; so it was not fitting that the son of that famous man should wed my mother without a dowry. (Demosthenes, 40.25)

Juries in Athens were made up of at least a hundred and one dikastai, chosen by lot from volunteers who had to be Athenian citizens over thirty years old. The speaker had to try to persuade the majority of these jurors to vote in his favour, whether because of the strength of his case or by appealing to their sentiments. Certainly he would not want to alienate too many people by expressing unpopular views; Mantitheus must therefore have assumed that his description of Cleon as a famous Athenian leader would be accepted by many among his audience. Yet such a positive assessment is likely to come as a surprise to most students of Athenian history, especially those familiar with Thucydides’ account of the part played by Cleon in the course of the PeloponnesianWar.

Read the rest here.

Book Bonanza

Monday, December 28th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

My usual yuletide haul of books received and purchased….

     

     

     

     

The Last of the President’s Men by Bob Woodward
Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum
Avoiding Armageddon: From the Great War to the Fall of France 1918-1940 by Jeremy Black
Roots of Strategy Book 3
Rule of the Clan by Mark Weiner
Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes
Democracy in Retreat by Joshua Kurlantzick
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
The Middle-East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 Years by Bernard Lewis
Patton: A Genius for War by Carlo D’Este
Beetle: The Life of General Walter Bedell Smith by D.K.R. Crosswell
The Libertarian Mind by David Boaz
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
A Dance of Dragons by George R.R. Martin 

If anyone has read these titles and wishes to fire away about them, or their authors in the comment section, feel free. Not sure how many will be featured in future reviews.

The Nixon books were first brought to my attention on, if I recall, the Facebook page of historian Maarja Krusten of NixonNARA, the expert’s expert in matters relating to the presidential records, documents, court cases and tapes of Richard Nixon. When Maarja opines on Nixon topics, I listen with care. I look forward to reading these, even though my opinion of  Bob Woodward is that he often has to be treated cautiously, Alexander Butterfield’s cooperation and contribution was obviously central to the book (not unlike the far longer cooperation between George Kennan and his biographer,  historian John Lewis Gaddis). Evan Thomas’ theme just offhand strongly reminds me of Richard Reeves’ excellent President Nixon: Alone in the White House; I’m curious if this will be a rehashing or if Thomas can bring something new to the table about America’s 37th President.

I am also excited about Rule of the Clan, which should be of interest to anyone thinking about insurgency, irregular warfare, unconventional warfare and terrorism intersecting with tribal or quasi-tribal societies. My friends Michael Lotus and James Bennett who wrote the excellent America 3.0 and drew on the family structure ideas of British anthropologist Alan Macfarlane and French scholar Emanuel Todd, would also be interested.

The fiction was picked up for a simpler reason. I need a change of pace and never read the last, most recent book in the Game of Thrones series.

What are you reading these days?

Reading “Hard” Books vs. Pretending to Do So

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The other day, some friends shared an old post by controversial conservative activist, writer and publisher of  The Federalist,  Ben Domenech, that struck a chord:

The Top Ten Books People Lie About Reading 

Have you ever lied about reading a book? Maybe you didn’t want to seem stupid in front of someone you respected. Maybe you rationalized it by reasoning that you had a familiarity with the book, or knew who the author was, or what the story was about, or had glanced at its Wikipedia page. Or maybe you had tried to read the book, even bought it and set it by your bed for months unopened, hoping that it would impart what was in it merely via proximity (if that worked, please email me). 

I have not, though I frequently catch many people in conversation and even more online who do.

What does happen too often is a sense of despair welling up as my Antilibrary looks down from the shelves with disapproval as I wonder when I will ever get around to reading them. Maybe this weird bibliophiliac guilt is what spurs people to lie about books they have read. Or perhaps they merely are lazy and want intellectual street cred without the work:

….Take Neil DeGrasse Tyson as one example, whom the internet loves with an unrestrained passion usually reserved for fluffy cat videos. He was asked a few years ago on reddit to share his recommended reading list.Given his brief commentary on the eight books he recommends, he seems largely unfamiliar with the actual content of the works by Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Niccolo Machiavelli, and particularly Sun Tzu, who views the avoidance of killing as the best form of warfare.

The truth is, there are lots of books no one really expects you to read or finish. War and Peace? The Canterbury Tales? The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? Announcing that you’ve finished those books might surprise a lot of people and make them think you’re abnormal or anti-social, unless you’re an English or History major who took their reading very, very seriously. Perhaps the shift to ebook format will diminish this reading by osmosis – and book sales, too – since people can afford to be honest about their preference for 50 Shades over The Red and the Black since their booklists are hidden in their Kindles and iPads.

E-reading and reading a book are different experiences. I read Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul on a kindle once. It was convenient, as I was traveling, but the kindle seemed better suited for fiction; with a serious book, I felt the need to mark up pages with marginalia. I last used the Kindle for reading Daniel Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom and then gave it to my Eldest child:

So here’s my attempt to drill this down to a more realistic list: books that are culturally ubiquitous, reading deemed essential, writing everyone has heard of… that you’d be mildly embarrassed to admit you’ve never read.

10. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: The libertarian moment has prompted a slew of people to lie about reading Ayn Rand, or to deploy the term “Randian” as a synonym for, say, competitive bidding in Medicare reform without even bothering to understand how nonsensical that is.

9. On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: Many pro-evolutionists online display no understanding that the pro-evolution scientific community rejects the bulk of Darwin’s initial findings about evolution.

8. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo and A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens: Virtually every bit of literature about the French Revolution could be tied here, though ignorance of it might inspire fun future headlines, such as “De Blasio Brandishes Knitting Needles, Calls For ‘The People’s Guillotine’ To Be Erected In Times Square.”

7. 1984, George Orwell: A great example of a book people think they have read because they have seen a television ad. On Youtube.

6. Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville: Politicians are the worst about this, quoting and misquoting the writings of the Tocqueville without ever bothering to actually read this essential work. But politicians do this a lot – with The Federalist Papers and The Constitution, too.

Read the rest here.

I have read # 10, 7, 3 and 2 multiple times each and expect I will read them again.  I’ve read de Tocqueville and Tale of Two Cities once. I have looked up stuff in Wealth of Nations but never read it despite having read von Hayek, von Mises, Galbraith, Friedman, Veblen and Marx. I can’t muster much enthusiasm either for Melville or James Joyce, though if forced to choose, I’d select the former.

There’s a lot of intellectual merit – and consequent pride, sort of a nerd throw-down bragging rights – in conquering a “hard” book. I’ve read many that didn’t make that particular list, but perhaps should – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,  Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, Clausewitz’s On War, Aristotle’s The Politics, Herodotus and Thucydides and (in a more modern vein) Barzun’s  Dawn to Decadence or Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.  But there’s many more I have not yet read and worse, may never get to, for lack of time or inclination. My hat is off to those who have slogged through Hobbes’ Leviathan or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason because I’m dubious that I ever will; and while I will probably get around to The Muqaddimah, I’m not sure if I will ever dive into Montaigne or Spengler or most of the great twentieth century novelists. Our time is scarce and so we must choose.

This is of course, what makes book-phonies so worthy of ridicule. There’s something pretentious and absurd about holding forth on a book you have not yourself read as if you were an expert. It’s not remotely as morally serious as the “Stolen honor” frauds who are regularly exposed faking military heroics, but the “Stolen intellect” pretenders to knowledge have a similar motivation and in the end, they are only fooling themselves.

What “hard” books do you take pride in having read?

Request for Information from the Readership

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Need some help with a project at work. 

Looking to assemble a fast-and-dirty reading list for laymen that deals with the following topics:

Social intelligence, Emotional self-regulation, Emotion and learning, De-escalation of conflict, Attention, Self-Efficacy

Interested in both academic (for reference) and middlebrow (for distribution) titles, particularly those that contain interpersonal strategies and organizational culture angles. Links to journal or magazine articles or whatever else you deem useful will also be appreciated.

Fire away, the more the better.

A Multi-Disciplinary Approach?: Coerr’s The Eagle and the Bear Outline

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Here is something for the learned readership to chew on.

As you are probably all aware, in the hard sciences it is common for research papers to be the product of large, multidiciplinary, teams with, for example, biochemists working with physicists, geneticists, bioinformatics experts, mathematicians and so on. In the social sciences and humanities, not so much. Traditional disciplinary boundaries and methodological conservatism often prevail or are even frequently the subject of heated disputes when someone begins to test the limits of academic culture

I’m not sure why this has to be so for any of us not punching the clock in an ivory tower.

The organizer of the Boyd & Beyond II Conference, Stan Coerr, a GS-15 Marine Corps, Colonel Marine Corps Reserve and Iraq combat veteran, several years ago, developed a very intriguing analytical outline of thirty years of Afghan War, which I recommend that you take a look at:

The Eagle and the Bear: First World Armies in Fourth World Insurgencies by Stan Coerr

the-eagle-and-the-bear-11.pdf

There are many potential verges for collaboration in this outline – by my count, useful insights can be drawn by from the following fields:

Military History
Strategic Studies
Security Studies
COIN Theory
Operational Design
Diplomatic History
Soviet Studies
Intelligence History
International Relations
Anthropology
Ethnography
Area Studies
Islamic Studies
Economics
Geopolitics
Military Geography
Network Theory

I’m sure that I have missed a few.

It would be interesting to crowdsource this doc a little and get a discussion started. Before I go off on a riff about our unlamented Soviet friends, take a look and opine on any section or the whole in the comments section.


Switch to our mobile site