Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Storm of Witchcraft by Emerson W. Baker

A Storm of Witchcraft by Emerson W. Baker is a comprehensive account and analysis of the Salem Witch Trials. This book is a solid history book that goes beyond a simple chronicle of events. It examines the causes and results of this important historical event. To this end, the author explores the relevant history, religious aspects, psychology, sociology, legal aspects, and other facets of this subject.

Baker devotes one comprehensive chapter to a summery of the actual persecutions. The balance of this work delves deeper into the accusers, the accused, the judges, as well as all of the above - mentioned topics.

If anyone is not familiar with the basic events, in 1692 Massachusetts, several teenaged and adolescent girls began to exhibit bizarre behavior that included seizure like episodes and complaints of strange pains. The girls, prompted and egged on by adults, began to accuse numerous members of the community of witchcraft. As people were arrested and tried, they were often forced or pressured into confessions that implicated others. As the circle of accusations widened, scores of people were implicated.

The usual suspects, eccentric and elderly women were caught in the web of accusations. But what made these events somewhat unusual is that respected people with strong ties to the community were also enmeshed. The accused included both men and women, prominent members of society and clergy.

Twenty people were executed, others died in prison as a result of brutal treatment, many others were convicted or accused but not executed, a few escaped and fled Massachusetts.

Baker tries to be a balanced historian. He is surprisingly non - judgmental. He does not bash Puritanism or the people responsible for the accusations or trials. In fact, he tries to paint a picture of why a citizen of Massachusetts might feel that they society were besieged by forces threatening their families, neighbors and communities.  At the same time, he presents, in detail, the arguments of those who have been highly critical of the key players. On this issue I found that he goes a little too far. Though clearly not his intention, some of his explanations come off as apology  for what in the end, was persecution and murder. 

Baker explores multiple issues in some depth goes and goes off in numerous directions. Thus summarizing his many points is difficult. One of several issues that are of interest to me is  the argument that the aftermath of the trials and executions led to a reckoning and was turning point in history.  From the end of the trials onward, there was a general feeling in the colony that something had gone terribly wrong and that innocent people had been executed. As early as late 1692 books were published excoriating the trials and those responsible for them. Dissent rose up both inside and outside the Puritan movement. Samuel Sewall, one of the judges who sentenced the convicted to hang, came to repent of his role in the matter. He publicly apologized and lived his remaining life in a state of guilt attempting to atone for his role in the trials.

The reaction to these events permanently ended the hysteria surrounding Witchcraft in America. Baker writes,

"No American court would ever again execute a witch after 1692, and witchcraft prosecutions came to an abrupt halt in New England.”

In the months and years following the trials, the government of Massachusetts came under increasingly under criticism. Collectively the concerns raised about the trials changed people’s views of their leadership and helped bring an end to the Puritan theocracy. 

Furthermore the Massachusetts government, led by Governor William Phips, attempted an unsuccessful cover up of events. The ensuring backlash turned out to be an important step in the establishment of basic liberties. Baker ties some of this agitation to trends that would eventually cumulate in the American Revolution. He writes,

“Phips may have ended the witch trials, but in the process he helped to start America down the long road to revolution and independence.”

Though he ended the trials, Phips also was instrumental in starting them. He was eventually pressured out of office for his role in them.

When Thomas Maule, a Massachusetts Quaker, wrote a book attacking the trials on moral, religious and legal grounds, the local government attempted to prosecute him on the same courtroom that the witch trials were held in.

He was eventually found not guilty. Baker writes,

“The case was a landmark victory for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. The fact that a jury consisting largely of Puritans would do this in Salem, against the clear wishes of the judges, also shows that the tide of popular opinion had turned against the verdicts in the witch trials.”  

Baker explores many other fascinating aspects of these events. For instance, years of bad weather in the region had led to major crop failures that caused great economic stress. The author argues that similar witch - hunts throughout the world often accompanied by similar economic duress.

Massachusetts was also a society at war. A brutal conflict was raging between the colonists and the French and their Native American allies.  War veterans and war refugees played important roles in this history. Baker argues that fear and societal stress generated by the struggle also played a part.

There are many books on this topic. Some are general such as this work, others look more closely at particular aspects of events. I originally had planned to read Stacy Schiff’s The Witches. However, many sources, both formal and informal who read that book, indicated that there were better accounts of these events, including this book.  This is a big and interesting topic. Thus I might soon read one or two more books on these events.

This work is a wide-ranging analysis and account of this dark time in American history. Baker is an excellent and unbiased historian. His is also a good writer and his analysis of events and motivations is reasoned and insightful. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in this subject.





Monday, April 17, 2017

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Jane Austen ‘s Mansfield Park is a novel that still drives a lot of differing opinions. Some love the book. Others find it to be disappointing. I found it to be superb. In some ways, it resembles other Austen books. It other ways, it is very different from the author’s other novels.

 This is the story of Fanny Price. Born to a relatively poor family, the novel’s heroine goes to live with the wealthy Bertram family while in her early teens. Fanny’s social and romantic interactions, as well as those of her adopted family, are the topic of the story. There are several subplots, and many of the novel’s characters are interesting and complex.

Fanny is atypical for an Austen heroine. She is exceedingly shy and unassuming. The word humble may be an understatement to describe her. Other characters sometimes bully, underappreciate and emotionally neglect her.

Early on, it becomes apparent that many of the Bertrams and their friends are narcissistic, unintellectual or seriously flawed in some major way. One exception is Fanny’s cousin, Edmund. It becomes clear that Fanny and he have an affinity for one another, though Edmund does not initially recognize the romantic aspects of it. Complicating matters is Edmund’s attraction for the sometimes kind but opportunistic, cynical and shallow Mary Crawford. Mary’s brother, Henry, though in many ways, narcissistic and manipulative himself, eventually becomes genuinely enamored with Fanny.

I have previously read Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion. I found this novel to be funnier than the Austen works that I have read. I also found many of the characters to be darker and less ethical. To be sure, all of the Austen books that I have read contain immoral characters who conduct themselves in questionable ways. However, this book contains a core of characters who consistently engage in extremely selfish, petty and narcissistic behavior. This includes Fanny’s cousins, Julia, Maria and Tom, as well as her Aunt Norris.

So much has been written about this book and about Fanny in particular. A Google search will show that for well over a century, professional critics as well as amateurs have produced a steady stream of essays, articles and books dedicated to this novel. One could spend years just reading books that analyze and dissect this work. Opinions vary on Fanny. Some see her as a paragon of virtue, and others see her a stiff and stifling person. Critic Nina Auerbach famously compared her to Marry Shelly’s monster of Frankenstein fame.  Since so much has already been written, I will, as I often do, just share some thoughts on one particular aspect of this book.

I think that it is clear that Austen intended to make Fanny sympathetic but also complex and flawed. The book’s heroine is, at times, inwardly judgmental in an unpleasant way. However, she is mostly sympathetic, but in an unusual way. There is a lot to her character. As noted above, Fanny is abnormally shy and unassuming. So much so that she is often browbeaten by the other characters. In particular, Mrs. Norris continually subjects her to criticism that comes close to being verbally abusive. On the other hand, her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, though a stern man, usually shows Fanny particular kindness. This changes when Fanny refuses Crawford’s marriage proposal.  Bertram is vehement in his desire that the match go forward. He launches a tirade on the subject aimed at Fanny,

“”But you have now shewn me that you can be wilful and perverse; that you can and will decide for yourself, without any consideration or deference for those who have surely some right to guide you, without even asking their advice. You have shewn yourself very, very different from anything that I had imagined. The advantage or disadvantage of your family, of your parents, your brothers and sisters, never seems to have had a moment’s share in your thoughts on this occasion. How they might be benefited, how they must rejoice in such an establishment for you, is nothing to you. You think only of yourself, and because you do not feel for Mr. Crawford exactly what a young heated fancy imagines to be necessary for happiness, you resolve to refuse him at once, without wishing even for a little time consider of it, a little more time for cool consideration, and for really examining your own inclinations; and are, in a wild fit of folly, throwing away from you such an opportunity of being settled in life, eligibly, honourably, nobly settled, as will, probably, never occur to you again. Here is a young man of sense, of character, of temper, of manners, and of fortune, exceedingly attached to you, and seeking your hand in the most handsome and disinterested way; and let me tell you, Fanny, that you may live eighteen years longer in the world without being addressed by a man of half Mr. Crawford’s estate, or a tenth part of his merits…You do not owe me the duty of a child. But, Fanny, if your heart can acquit you of ingratitude””

The above is tyrannical, petty and unfair. The “wild fit of folly” as well as the references to selfishness are particularly unjust given Fanny’s calm temperament, seriousness and selflessness. Yet the best that Fanny can do here is to shrink back, cry and do nothing to defend herself. This is consistent with her behavior throughout the narrative.

However, there is another aspect to Fanny’s character. Despite this timidity, she is unwavering when applying her principles. Despite her shrinking in response to the above diatribe, she never once considers giving in and accepting Crawford’s proposal. She maintains this stance despite enormous pressure from her family, friends and Crawford himself. She does not love the man and has serious questions about his integrity. She not only refuses to give in, but she never even considers accepting his proposal. Fanny is not even tempted.

Fanny shows a similar combination of timidity and unyielding backbone when she refuses to act in a play being put on by her family and friends that she has moral objections to. What adds to the complexity of the book is that at times, as in the case of the play, these moral objections may seem questionable. There is a lot going on with Fanny. This seems to be the source of some readers’ dislike of this book and her character.

Austen has fashioned in Fanny a young woman who is often meek, but who is capable of putting up wall of granite when her morals are challenged. Hence, the paradox that I refer to above. This is only one of several angles that makes Fanny fascinating and multidimensional. In order to explore them all, I would need several blog posts.


The above is also only one of many aspects that also makes this book appealing. The novel has other complex and fascinating characters. The story is interesting. There is a lot going on thematically. As always, Austen’s prose is brilliant and witty. The book is also very funny in a cynical and biting way.   Despite varying opinion among critics and general readers, I thought that this was another complex masterpiece by Austen.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper

This post contains spoilers.


The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper is science fiction story that takes place hundreds of years after the collapse of modern civilization due to a catastrophic event known as “The Convulsion.” The book delves deeply into the issues of gender and violence. As is typical with any fictional exploration on gender, this novel still prompts a lot of Internet discussion despite being first published in 1988. 

Tepper has created a fictional society where the genders are separated. In the cities, which are ecologically self - sustaining but relatively low technology, the majority of the population is comprised of women. All the political and social power is, at least on the surface, in control of women. At the age of five boys are sent outside of the city walls. There, an all male, warrior culture exists. At periodic times during the year there is a “Carnival” where the warriors mingle with the women of the city. During this time sexual encounters are frequent. Thus people supposedly procreate.

At the age of fifteen the boys are given a choice: remain outside the city walls, and engage in the occasional brutal wars between the “garrisons” that surround each city, or reenter the city and live their lives as a “servitor”. The servitors live lives of relative comfort and are seemingly well treated, but are second - class citizens. It is a testament to the nuance of Tepper’s skills in crafting this fictional society that the servitors’ relationship to the women of the cities is complex and nuanced. These men are often, but not always, shown respect and are sometimes treated as equals within family units. It is eventually revealed that some servitors wield power behind scenes and have a great stake in preserving the cities of Women’s Country. It is also revealed that the leadership of Women’s Country are engaged in a selective breeding plan aimed at making future generations of men less prone to violence. 

There are other groups that live outside the city walls that follow more egalitarian gender and traditional family roles. Characters who are members of this group provide an important perspective on the cultures of the male garrisons as well as Women’s Country.

The main character in the book is Stavia, a citizen of the city of Marthatown. Stavia is interesting and nuanced. She is a strong and intelligent but also capable of showing weakness. The narrative spans a large percentage of her life from the time she is twelve years old through her late thirties. Other characters include members of Stavia’s family, as well as Joshoa, a servitor who has impressive physical and psychic powers. 

Chernon is a young warrior who is Stavia’s love interest.  Over time he shows himself to be malevolent and vicious. Like several women in the book, Stevia is attracted to a man despite knowing that such attraction is not in her self - interest. This plot development ties into the novel’s themes. 

The story comes to a climax when Stavia and Chernon strike off on a exploration of uncharted lands. They are captured by a group of religious fanatics who treat women as property. This plot development allows Tepper to explore even more angles relating to gender.

The novel has much to say about gender and violence. Throughout the cities of Women’s Country a play called Iphigenia is immensely popular. This work is a modified version of Euripides’s The Trojan Woman. Large parts of the play’s dialogue are included in the text. Iphigenia ties into the novel’s themes in several ways. One of the main messages conveyed in the performance is that violence and war perpetuated by men has devastating consequences for women, children, and for society in general. The play is indictment of violence that is mostly perpetuated by men. 

Tepper’s fictional society has found a way to channel violence. The women of the cities, the warriors of the garrisons and the servitors all live by a strict code of laws. The garrisons only war among themselves. Combat is ritualized, takes place as the garrisons face each other in fields, and cannot involve any weapons that have ranges beyond a couple of feet. Only soldiers die or suffer. The remainder of society is not affected in any way. No man is forced to be soldier, as they can choose to be servitors instead. 

At one point Stevia’s mother, explains the arrangement to Stevia, 

War is dreadful, daughter. It always has been. Comfort yourself with the knowledge that in preconvulsion times it was worse! More died, and most of them were women, children, and old people. Also, wars were allowed to create devastations. Under our ordinances, no children are slain.  No women are slain. Only men who choose to be warriors go to battle. There is no devastation.”  

Tepper is pointing out that a percentage of men are violent. She seems to view this kind of men as irredeemable. The men of the garrisons are in the end, all depicted as untrustworthy and prone to dominate and harm others. The breeding program is indication that Tepper believes that a propensity for violence is genetic. Of course the factors that drive violence or complicated, but I agree that there is strong genetic component.

In the book, some men, as represented by the servitors, though capable of violence for self - defense and to protect others, are mostly peaceful, ethical and moral. This also seems to be reflective of the author’s view of men. 

In the story it is emphasized that some women, maybe most, are often attracted to destructive and dangerous men. This happens despite the fact that on an intellectual level they know it is not wise to do so. This is a stereotype that we often hear in popular culture. It is common to hear people say that that many women are attracted to dangerous and abusive men. I would like to see data and studies, if this is possible, to determine if there is a propensity for women to do this. My own, extremely biased observations about people, is that a percentage of both woman and men are attracted to destructive people. I have not noticed a difference between genders. 

Tepper’s ethical characters end up in terrible dilemma. In order to stop the garrisons from overrunning the cities and enslaving women, from time to time the cities’ leadership, consisting a small number of women and servitors working behind the scenes, manipulate and goad the garrisons into wars that lead to mass slaughters of men. The moral quandary that this raises is expressed at several points in the text.

Tepper offers no easy solution to this dilemma. Though the root of the conundrum is violent men, no one in the know has clean hands. 

In some ways this book is a cry of despair in response to human violence. At one point both Stavia and Joshoa are brought to tears over it. Tepper seems see as the best the solution a matriarchal society that treats non - violent men benevolently. Longer term, in order to eliminate violence in the world, she has created a fantastical breeding program. 

My take is that it is easy to become negative about violence in the world. Unimaginable brutality happens. Often non - combatants trapped in proximity to such brutality suffer immeasurably. History and current events show that a small percentage of men are responsible for this violence.  Despite these horrors, there are things that reduce violence short of playing with human genetics. I once again I point readers to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature for practical, evidence based solutions

I have also recently read Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women. My commentary on that book is here. Tepper’s novel was published two years after Sargent’s. There are obvious similarities between the two stories. Both center on matriarchal societies that segregate men and women. Both involve a violent male society living outside the cities. They even both include a plot development that involves the main characters visiting a small misogynist group plagued by inbreeding. One has to wonder if Tepper read the Shore of Women before writing this. However, there are a lot of differences between the works, particularly in the philosophy conveyed. This novel has a lot of unique things to say about gender and violence that are different from Sargent’s views.  This book was more intellectual and focused more on themes and symbolism then did Shore of Women. Sargent’s book was more action driven. I like Tepper’s prose better then Sergent’s. Sergent's prose is flatter.  

If I am reading Tepper correctly, I think she is actually advocating for a matriarchal system in order to stem violence. In contrast, Sargent’s philosophy seems egalitarian and advocates for equality. 

This book has some flaws. The male characters fit too neatly into categories. The men who choose to stay in the garrisons are depicted as hopelessly violent and untrustworthy. In contrast the servitors are portrayed as almost saint - like. As stated above, this book is also a little too derivative of Pamela Sargeant’s novel.

Despite its flaws this work is a fascinating foray into the issues of gender and violence. As I noted in regards to Sargent’s book, one does not need to agree with all or most of Tepper’s philosophy and world - view in order to enjoy these ruminations. Stavia is also a very interesting, nuanced character. The world that Tepper has created here is also fascinating and well thought out.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in fanciful explorations of gender or violence. It makes an interesting comparison to Sargent’s work. It also will appeal to readers who are interested in fictional societies and cultures. Certain readers will find this book very enjoyable and very thought provoking. 



Wednesday, April 5, 2017

From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel C. Dennett


Daniel C. Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds is an attempt to explain how human minds and the concept of consciousness came to be. This book is a hybrid of natural science, social science and philosophy. Dennett is both a philosopher and a cognitive scientist. I have also read his Consciousness Explained. That work was written in 1991. In many ways, this recent book builds on the earlier work.

This book consists of Dennett laying out and interpreting how he believes minds, both human and animal, evolved. The author covers the origins of life, the evolution of life, brains and cognition. Eventually, Dennett moves on and explores the theory of memes. For those unfamiliar with the theory behind memes, it postulates that human ideas and culture can be broken down into small ideas. Such ideas spawn new ideas, compete with one another, sometimes thrive, sometimes die out, etc. Memes evolve in a way that are similar to genes. Thus, human culture and ideas evolve in a Darwinian fashion. Dennett contends that much of what we consider the human mind and consciousness can be attributed to memes.

This book is very technical in some parts. I found some of it to be difficult to comprehend. The author presupposes a basic understanding of such concepts as evolution, basic biology and other aspects of basic science. I found that most of the science and other technical aspects of the book to be understandable. However, occasionally, the science and technical parts of the book became obtuse. For instance, at one point in the text the author delves into concepts related to Bayesian Probability. I went into this book knowing what Bayesian probability is, and I had a very basic understanding of the concept. However, this rudimentary knowledge turned out to be insufficient for me to fully follow all of Dennett’s arguments. With that, I understood the majority of the science presented in this work.

Where I was most challenged was in my ability to follow all of Dennett’s philosophy and reasoning. A reader more versed in modern philosophy would likely have done better here. With that, even when I had difficulty comprehending particular points, I was usually able understand the main arguments being made and compartmentalize the arguments that I could not understand.

It is important to note that this book comprises a lot of opinion. Dennett has all sorts of ideas on scientific and technical subjects that are not settled. To his credit, in an effort to refute arguments and theories that he does not agree with, the author often presents beliefs that counter his own with some detail. For instance, though many scientists and philosophers embrace the theory of memes, many do not. Dennett is a strong believer in the theory. Despite this, the author elaborates detailed augments against memes.   

Towards the end of the work, Dennett lays out his theory of the mind and consciousness. Dennett's approach is Materialist. He believes that most of what goes on in our brains are automated processes that we have neither access to nor control over. What we consider consciousness is but one “system” that came about though evolution of genes and memes. This conscious system exists primarily to communicate with others. Dennett reasons that we must be able to analyze our own inner mental processes in order to convince, cooperate, compete and interact with other individuals Dennett goes further and speculates that what we call consciousness is mostly illusionary and mainly consists of false explanations of our actions and hidden thought processes.

Dennett acknowledges that his ultimate theory seems difficult to accept. I agree that it is difficult to accept. With that, I think it is important to note certain things about Dennett’s argument. First, the idea that consciousness might be illusionary is somewhat popular with some, but not with all scientists and philosophers who are exploring the human mind. Second, Dennett has a scientific mind, and he admits that he has not fully proven his hypotheses and is making educated guesses based on evidence. He spends the bulk of the work building both evidence and arguments for his beliefs.  Finally, he spells out why, assuming that his model is valid, people would reject it based upon human bias. He writes,

“You might be a zombie, unwittingly taking yourself to have real consciousness with real qualia, but I know that I am not a zombie! No, you don’t. The only support for that conviction is the vehemence of the conviction itself, and as soon as you allow the theoretical possibility that there could be zombies, you have to give up your papal authority about your own nonzombiehood.”

“Zombie” is a term used commonly by scientists and others who explore consciousness. It more or less describes people, animals or machines that are not conscious. The above quote is referring to the fact that people might argue that they have free will and consciousness, but have minds that really only consist of automated process.

Though I am far from convinced that Dennett’s ultimate conclusions are valid, I acknowledge that he has built a compelling case. In addition, the book is filled with lots of real science and intriguing philosophy and insights that are worth exploring.

I have read several books and a lot of articles on the human mind and consciousness, and I think that it is important to keep in mind that there are many views and theories that relate to these issues. Many views are similar to Dennett’s, but many are different. For some alternate theories on the these subjects, I recommend David Chalmers's The Conscious Mind. Chalmers believes that there is something very special about consciousness that is embedded in the Universe itself. This approach is known as Dualism. His book is fascinating but difficult. 

I recommend this book to readers who are not afraid of challenging books. In my opinion, it works best as part of a broader reading plan dedicated to consciousness. At this point, it cannot be considered the final word on this topic. With all of this, in the right context, this is a fascinating read on one of the most intriguing and important of scientific and philosophical topics.