Tag Archives: Books

I have been revisiting some old writing lately. Some of it should be confined to the dustbin… some of it deserves more consideration. These thoughts on Agamben & Strauss I’d say deserve more thought. They were the focus of an old conference paper I once gave, and then never did anything with. Writing and reading is purely for pleasure now, so I’m not sure what I will do next, but these thoughts have some kernel of usefulness in them, I believe.  With the publication of Strauss’s lectures, and helpful volumes such as the recent collection on Strauss’s 1930s work (“Reorientation”), obviously the literature would need to be addressed anew. I’ve long thought that Strauss needs to supplement the arguments that Agamben makes in Homo Sacer, especially given that Agamben mentions him by name. What follows is the beginning of such an attempt. 

“What is Security?” Two answers from Strauss & Agambem

Strauss’s “Notes on Carl Schmitt” have been translated and published alongside Schmitt’s treatise since 1996, while the appearance of Homo Sacer in English in 1998—a book that takes up the debate on emergency powers between Schmitt and Walter Benjamin—shows readers that Strauss’s philosophy is one of the touchstones from which Agamben’s critique takes its bearings.  Agamben, while introducing his understanding of the distinction between zoe and bios says the following:  “The idea of an inner solidarity between democracy and totalitarianism…is obviously not (like Leo Strauss’s thesis concerning the secret convergence of the final goals of liberalism and communism) a historiographical claim, which would authorize the liquidation and leveling of the enormous differences that characterize their histories and rivalry” (Agamben 1998, 10).  That is, Strauss’s interpretation of the history of political philosophy in Agamben’s presentation is unable to “thematically interrogate the link between bare life and politics” and cannot “bring the political out of its concealment and, at the same time, return thought to its practical calling” (Agamben 1998, 4-5).  Agamben turns to Strauss again at the very conclusion of the work:

Every attempt to rethink the political space of the West must begin with the clear awareness that we no longer know anything of the classical distinction between zōe and bios, between private life and political existence, between man as a simple living being at home in the house and man’s political existence in the city.  This is why the restoration of classical political categories proposed by Leo Strauss and, in a different sense, by Hannah Arendt can have only a critical sense.  There is no return from the camps to classical politics. (1998, 187)

Agamben has picked a fine interlocutor, though it is unclear how aware Agamben is of this fact, as Strauss demonstrates a surprising ability to respond to Agamben’s challenges.[1]  Agamben mentions Strauss on other time in Homo Sacer, during his discussion of the distinction between physis [nature] and nomos [law/custom/convention].[2]  There, Agamben identifies the “classical natural right” teaching—by way of Strauss—to be the use of the “law of nature” to undermine the “Sophistic opposition” between nature and nomos (1998, 35).[3]

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Read the “Ten Rules of Writing” by Amitava Kumar.  Pay special attention to number six:

A bookshelf of your own. Choose one book, or five, but no more than ten, to guide you, not with research necessarily, but with the critical matter of method or style. Another way to think about this is to ask yourself who are the writers, or scholars, or artists that you are in conversation with. I use this question to help arrive at my own subject matter, but it also helps with voice.

That is a fantastic idea.  I think it’s worth reflecting on this and then coming up with my own list.  Off the top of my head, Williams James and CS Lewis would be way up there for tone and rhetoric. But I need to think much longer on it, if we’re talking about 10 books (and I won’t be cheeky and say the 10 books of Plato’s Republic or something, though that can totally count).

From the autobiographical preface to his mammoth History of England:

I resolved to make a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency of fortune, to maintain unimpaired my independency, and to regard every object as contemptible, except the improvement of my talents in literature.

I usually post about books I have read or I am currently reading. So here’s a first: a book that I’d definitely like to and need to read.  New in paperback, from Princeton University Press, The Symptom and The Subject: The Emergence of the Physical Body in Ancient Greece, by Brook Holmes.  If you are a Foucaultian, Platonist, or Thucydidean, this is probably going to be an enlightening argument.  A quote from the introduction:

I explore and defend the claim that the physi­ cal body plays a pivotal but unacknowledged role in ideas about the human in the fifth and early fourth centuries, as well as in the formation of a new kind of ethical subjectivity centered on practices of caring for the self. I explain the strength of its influence in terms of its dual identity. On the one hand, the phys­ical body is a model of intelligibility: although its workings are hidden, a physi­cian trained in the medical tekhnē, “science” or “art,” may reconstruct them through reasoning. Doing so allows him both to intervene in disease and to manage health. On the other hand, that body is an untrustworthy and unfamil­ iar thing: it is prone to disorder, largely estranged from consciousness, and ani­ mated not by intentions but by impersonal, asocial powers. Its very strangeness, I argue, encourages ancient thinkers to take an increasing interest in the psukhē as the locus of the person.

As with all PUP book, the intro is freely available. Scroll down to pages 24-5 and you’ll see some thoughts on the role that the body plays in Thucydides’ account of the politics of the plague and presentation of the Funeral Oration of Pericles.  Biopolitics in Ancient Greece is worth attention, hence the project on “Periclean Biopolitics” that I’ve been saying is “the next project” for a couple of years now. Anyways, based on the introduction, Holmes looks to have written a very interesting and important book.

I never start the day reading what I’m supposed to be reading, though I always end the day that way. To wit, the last things I read last night was §29 of Being and Time on attunement, mood, and affect, and finished reading Franz Neumann’s essay “Anxiety and Politics”. This morning, I pulled a collection of essays by C.S. Lewis of the bookshelf (and IR scholar must go the Ls to retrieve Lebow, after all), and (re)discovered this passage on reading old books. Some quotes:

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will corrected the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who see, most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ – lies where we have never suspected it….None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.

Never forget that Lewis’s book on Nature and Natural Right, on the Order of the Cosmos – The Abolition of Man – begins with a critique of a children’s grammar book. I’ve unconsciously followed Lewis’s advice (in previous posts here) for reading older books by pitting his understanding of Heart and Thumos against Fukuyama’s End of History, where Fukuyama reads Lewis in a purely material way to shape his argument on progress, science, capitalism, and democracy.

Pedagogically, one his hard pressed to disagree with Lewis’s point that it is far, far, easier for students to read Plato than Platonic scholarship. Students proved this to me earlier this year, in a wholly unexpected way. While designing a course on Cosmopolitanism, I left out a week of readings on the Enlightenment, specifically Lessing and Mendelssohn. But when we read a section from Kant’s Theory and Practice on International Right (“against Moses Mendelssohn”), my students preferred Mendelssohn. In fact, they were much more enamoured with Mendelssohn than they were Kant, or with Habermas and Rawls on deliberation and public reason. It behooves teachers to listen to their students.

I haven’t paid enough attention to Chapter 46 of Hobbes’s Leviathan, in English or Latin. This series of remarks from the 14th Latin paragraph are otherworldly:

For after a year or two Pope Leo, in his correspondence, exhorted Emperor Charlemagne to establish universities throughout his dominions, where all letters and sciences would be taught. So he set up, in Paris, the first university; and afterwards other kings set up others, each in his own dominion, which, once the colleges had been set up and organized for study, where to be governed by laws, according to the discretion of the Roman pontiff. Finally, from masters such as Peter Lombard, Duns Scotus, and Thomas Aquinas, was born the theology which they call scholastic, a hodgepodge of Aristotle’s philosophy and Sacred Scripture. In the universities they teach Aristotle’s logic, his physics, his metaphysics, his ethics, and his politics, as if the whole of the sciences were in one man, who was then also the greatest father of the Church, Aristotle. But especially to establish among adolescents a demeanor of deference, they were exercised in public disputations and speeches, by which they could maintain and preach the dogmas of the Roman church. So by the sermons of ecclesiastics, sent from the universities into almost all the cities, towns and parishes of the Christian world, and by published writings, it was fixed inedibly in the minds of all Christians that there is no other rule of just and unjust except the dictates of the Roman church, that kings are not to be obeyed further than is permitted by the Roman church, and kings themselves ought to obey the Roman pontiff like sheep. And they accomplished what they set out to accomplish.

Emphasis mine, on the white-hot fire that Hobbes just threw at Aristotle. A “hodgepodge” of Aristotle and scripture has come to represent the entirety of the contest between philosophy and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem. This is somehow stronger than his justly famous English takedown: “And I believe that scarce anything can be more absurdly said in natural philosophy than that which now is called Aristotle’s Metaphysics; nor more repugnant to government than much of that he hath said in his Politics; nor more ignorantly than a great part of his Ethics. Perhaps the benefits of modern translation vs Olde English explain my impression of the Latin text, but the clear and pernicious influence of Aristotle on the sociology of knowledge at the time Hobbes was writing comes through so loud and clear. And read this phrase again: ”But especially to establish among adolescents a demeanour of deference…" – has the problem of education ever been so pithily explained? Here’s my Hobbesian inspired statement of teaching philosophy from this day forward: to undo the demeanor of deference established among adolescents.

n.b. quotes from Curley’s translation.

First things. After many, many, months (i.e. almost two years) I finally finished Tecumseh and Brock – what a wonderful book. One thinks the Canadian government’s valourization of these two eminent figures of Canadian history was the right intention, poorly executed. (Next will be The Civil War of 1812).

I am also looking for a treatment of the rebellions of Upper and Lower Canada in 1838/9 that is truly a work of political history. If you’ve stumbled across this space and have some suggestions, please share.

Like the rest of the world I inhabit, I’ve started reading Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Doubt I’ll have more to say than what has already been printed. I recommend Larry Arnhart’s thoughts, comparing Piketty’s account of the origins of inequality with the light and compass on that topic.

Oh, I’ve read Crazytown, the story of the incredible last year in my humble metropolis. The title is appropriate. I also read a fantastic book (on the recommendation of Elise) by John Vaillant: The Tiger. This gripping account of life in the Taiga is superb writing. This author is a notch above Krakauer who is far more famous in this genre. Next up is The Golden Spruce.

But the purpose of this post is the intellectual autobiography by McMaster Professor Emeritus Janet Ajzenstat: Discovering Confederation. This book is a treasure, and permanent possession. If only more academics would be so brave to recount their relationship to the great and permanent questions – but this first requires the bravery and courage to face these questions. And though it’s an autobiography one learns far more about Canada than about Ajzenstat. This book is a window into the essence of the Canadian founding, or at least one path there. It is for that reason necessary reading – not just for any Canadian, but especially for them – but for those of us who aspire to a truly liberal education. Here is an example of a scholar devoting a lifetime of study to the regime in which she was cultured and educated, in order to divine some insight into the permanent problems of political life – i.e. good and just governance, the exercise of freedom, the struggle for equality, and so on. Canada’s governing institutions come to life not as some counterrevolution as I was taught, or some afterthought, or some accident, but as a purposefully chosen. When Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said that the constitution was not worth the paper it’s written on, he could not be further from the truth nor a better example of the need for a thorough evaluation of Canadian civic education.

The highlights of this book for me are many. The kind words for one of my supervisors (whose heavily annotated copy of Ajzenstat’s Political Thought of Lord Durham I have been lucky to inherit). The shade throwing on my university library for its past greatness and current shame. The gloss on her Rabbi who remains unnamed but must have been Rabbi Stanley Weber, and whose dissertation on Strauss I’ve written about previously in this space. And the wonderful recollections of Allan Bloom during his Toronto days, and her fond memories of his Emile course. As a student of political philosophy whose culminating year at U of T was spent reading Emile with one of Bloom’s most famous students, before arriving at McMaster to study political theory and modernity, Ajzenstat’s book is a beautiful depiction of the two places my education has called home.

These personal attachments to her story are, of course, not so important to those with a different biography. But her book, as her career, does its best work advocating for the importance of the way Canada’s Fathers of Confederation answered the most pressing question that humanity has ever face: “How must we live?”. I should turn to the edited collection on Canada’s Founding Debates right away.

Immanuel Kant, Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose, under the fifth proposition:

Man, who is otherwise so enamoured with unrestrained freedom, is forced to enter this state of restriction by sheer necessity.  And this is indeed the most stringent of all forms of necessity, for it is imposed by men upon themselves, in that their inclinations make it impossible for them to exist side by side for long in a state of wild freedom.  But once enclosed within a precinct like that of civil union, the same inclinations have the most beneficial effect.  In the same way, trees in a forest, by seeking to deprive each other of air and sunlight, compel each other to find these by upward growth, so that they grow beautiful and straight–whereas those which put out branches at will, in freedom and in isolation from others, grow stunted, bent and twisted.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter II, “Of the liberty of thought and discussion”

Socrates was put to death, but the socratic philosophy rose like the sun in heaven, and spread its illumination overt the whole intellectual firmament.  Christians were cast to the lions, but the Christian church grew up a stately and spreading tree, overtopping the older and less vigorous growths, and stifling them by its shade. Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion.

Far from missing the forest for the trees, there is a world of disagreement buried in this wood.

It strikes me that I own, have read, and will read, a number of books with the word “Mind” in the title. To wit, a list:

The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt

The Political Mind, George Lakoff

The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin

The Reckless Mind, Mark Lilla

The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom

The Phenomenology of Spirit Mind, G.W.F. Hegel

What should be added? I’m sure I’ve missed some notorious titles.

I dare you to find someone currently reading a better crop of books right now than I am. OK, slight hyperbole, but this is a fun mix of pleasure and dissertation material: 

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind

Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars

James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom (this one has been a slow burn for a while now)

Michel Foucault’s “Society Must be Defended”, Lectures 1975-1976

Thucydides, Kthema es Aei

W. Robert Connor’s Thucydides

Leo Strauss’s Defense of the Philosophic Life: Reading ‘What is Political Philosophy?’ edited by Rafael Major. 

Oh, and Dirk Hayhurst’s Out of My League. (baseball is the most esoteric of sports–being played between the lines, as it is–so this title is allowed).   

Also just finished Philip Gourevitch’s We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, which is a book deserving of its own post.