Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Rise of Rome by Anthony Everitt

The Rise of Rome by Anthony Everitt is an engaging chronicle of the Republic’s rise to power in the ancient world. The author has written an extremely informative political, economic, military, religious, philosophical and social history of the first four hundred or so years subsequent to Rome’s founding. This book very effectively covers an enormous swath of time as well as topics.

One major problem that is symptomatic of many ancient histories is turned into an advantage in this book. That is, the historical record for the first two hundred years or so of Rome’s history ranges from the scant to the incomplete. For the early years, the author interspaces what is known and/or can be intelligently speculated with the numerous legends and stories that the Romans created concerning their own past. He writes,

The city's foundation myths and the events of its early centuries are almost entirely unhistorical, but they were what Romans believed of themselves. They are a rich and poetic feast that has nourished European civilization for two thousand years. It is only in the past few generations that our collective mind has begun to jettison them.”

Everitt encapsulates the fascinating though mostly fictional tales of such figures as Aeneas, Romulus and Remus, as well as accounts of possibly real people involved in actions and events that were likely wholly or in part apocryphal.  These legends are in of themselves engaging narratives. Everitt points out that while some of these stories do seem to have a basis in truth, they were often crafted to make political or philosophical points. As the centuries progress, accurate historical evidence becomes more plentiful and thus a more coherent chronological narrative is laid out.

Formed, more than founded, sometime around the 7th   or 8th century B.C., Rome was initially a monarchy. Established at a time when Greek culture was dominant in the region, the city developed a culture that was a variation upon the Greek. Sometime in the 4th century BC the monarchy was overthrown and replaced by a republic that Everitt describes as a mix of oligarchy, monarchy and democracy. The government was a complex mix of multiple legislative bodies and executives. The Senate was the most famous and at times the most powerful of these.

As the centuries passed, Rome both warred as well as practiced smart diplomacy and slowly grew to first encompass its near neighbors, then the Italian Peninsula. Later, major conflicts with Epirus, Macedonia, Pontus and Carthage resulted in Roman victories and enormous territorial and power gains throughout the Mediterranean region.

The book is full of engaging narratives of famous Romans and non -Romans who interacted with the Republic, such as Cato the Elder, Brutus the Elder, Hannibal, Pyrrhus of Epirus and many others. Everitt does not skimp on the common Roman either. Many pages are devoted to painting a picture as to what it was like being a member of various groups, including the wealthy, the poor, women, slaves, etc.

The author does not shy away from covering Roman brutality. Though to its credit, the nation often absorbed vanquished foes into the Republic; in other instances it carried out what today would be called genocidal campaigns of annihilation against defeated nations. The most famous example of this barbarity was the fate of Carthage. Romans also enslaved millions. According to Everitt the Roman slave system was particularly inhumane as compared to previous systems as the Republic worked hundreds of thousands of people to death in both agricultural pursuits and in mines. It is also well known that Rome spread savage gladiatorial combat throughout its territory.

 There are many points to this history worth pondering. Just one of several important threads here was just how important organization was to Rome’s success. In many ways, Rome was an extremely organized and efficient society in comparison to other states in existence at the time. Everitt argues that this efficiency and proficiency made the most difference when it came to laws, government and engineering.

This ordered legal system and government provided relative internal stability, sparing Rome some of the strife and chaos that was symptomatic of many other cities and peoples. To be sure, there was conflict between the powerful “Patricians” and the common “Plebeians.” This was mostly resolved through compromise, however. Everitt writes,

The remarkable story of how Rome’s class struggle was resolved is evidence that generation after generation of pragmatists were willing to give and take, to make do and mend, to strike deals with their political opponents.”

Furthermore, at least in the first few hundred years, a very organized government allowed Rome to effectively integrate, as opposed to rule over, peoples and territories that it conquered. Such assimilation of neighboring populations, rare in the ancient world, was integral to Rome’s success. Other states and empires were comprised of small core areas with limited populations attempting to hold on to larger conquered territories and peoples using limited resources. As Rome subsumed and merged more territories, it increased both its population as well as resources that were readily available to it. Thus, the Republic was able to outcompete its rivals.

As time passed, a large empire gave way to enormous empire. These legal and governmental systems, perfectly fashioned to govern a moderate sized ancient state, did not evolve with the times. Everitt explains how these institutions began to fail as the Republic turned into a behemoth. Civil strife and overambitious men led to the fall of the Republic and imperial dictatorship.

Likewise Rome’s engineering accomplishments were amazing and allowed for the development of an efficient and successful economic and military state. Everitt explains that by constructing technologically advanced roads, sewer systems and aqueducts, the Romans created a nation that was unbeatable both economically and militarily.

This work is a great source for anyone interested in ancient history, as well as the history of government, philosophy, economy and military. As Everitt points out, the earlier republican Roman years are less well known than those of the later empire. There are many lessons here for folks who want to gain a better understanding of the world. Understanding the Roman Republic is of key importance if one is to understand Western Civilization as well as the modern world. Thus I end with Everitt’s observations that,

The idea of Rome is imprinted on our genes.”

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov

Unpublished during his lifetime, The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov is a deeply philosophical novel filled with ruminations upon life and the human condition. It is also satirical and in parts veers into the absurd. 

Like Platonov’s Happy Moscow, this book is set in the Soviet Union. It is the 1920s, and factory worker Voshchev is laid off from his job for too much thinking and not enough working. Shortly thereafter, he joins a work crew of diggers who are tasked with excavating a foundation pit that is the first step in the construction of a huge communal housing building. We are subsequently introduced to the various characters who are part of the excavation team. 

Voshchev himself is in search of truth and the meaning of life. Various other members of the work crew exhibit interesting personalities. Safronov is the earnest and hard working group leader. Kozlov is a one hundred percent true believer in communist and party ideals.  Prushevsky is the engineer who often tries to look at life in terms of material reality and rational calculation. Chiklin is an unthinking and somewhat violent enforcer of party ideology. Zhachev is also violent as well as legless and likes to terrorize those he deems as members of the bourgeois upper classes. This diverse group, as well as the project itself, is ripe fodder for musings about the meaning of life and humanity, as well as communist ideals.

When a bourgeois woman from Prushevsky’s and Kozlev’s past dies, the crew adopts her young daughter Natasha, who clearly represents the future of communism. Eventually, the narrative changes to surrealistic absurdity. Horses who begin to collectivize their own hay and a bear, who is a blacksmith’s assistant and who has a tendency to rough up members of the upper class peasantry, are introduced. 

The novel is highly symbolic and allegorical. It almost seems that every sentence is infused with layers of meaning. I believe that this work is ultimately an exploration of humankind’s search for purpose and universal truth. For example, Voshchev is obsessed with discovering the meaning behind human existence. 

This all seems to relate to the book’s complex exploration of communism. Though ultimately an indictment of the ideology, Platonov acknowledges that the system has many good intentioned adherents who are genuinely interested in improving the world and believe that the quest is a worthy purpose to life. This is, however, a tragic mistake.

Again and again, Platonov provides evidence that communism is destroying the human soul. In one of many examples, a priest who has “converted” to socialism remarks,

 Living’s no use to me” and later “I no longer feel the beauty of creation – I’m left without God, and God’s without man”.

Too much science and logic are also excoriated as spiritually vacuous. At one point, the rationalist Prushevsky sinks into suicidal despair and is unable to reconcile true human emotions with his analytical way of thinking. 

It seemed to Prushevsky that all his emotions, all his desires and his old longings met in his reasoning mind and gained awareness of themselves down to the very sources of their origin, mortally destroying the naivety of hope. But the origins of emotions remained a troubling place in life, by dying one could lose forever this single happy, true area of existence without having entered it.  But good God, what was to be done if he lacked any of those self – obvious impressions that quicken life and make it rise and stretch its arms forward toward hope”

If there is any solace here, it seems to come from human recognition of the value of life, even seemingly unimportant life. Throughout the narrative, Voshchev continually collects little mementoes of deceased and bygone people, animals and plants and thoughtfully reflects upon both the objects and the lives. 

Though at one point a group of the economically well off are placed on a raft and forever cast adrift at sea to “liquidate” them, this is not a story of state oppression, secret police or arrests. Instead it depicts extreme forms of collectivization and modernization as soul wrecking malignancies. Amazingly, as per the commentary by translator Mirra Ginsburg, Platonov did attempt to have this published in the Soviet Union, but unsurprisingly failed.

This is a challenging work; what begins as a somewhat conventionally written character study evolves into what is at times a bizarre and highly whimsical tale. I have also overgeneralized the ideas presented here. Platonov is anything but a simplistic writer and his themes and metaphors take all sorts of twists and turns that we are often presented cryptically. At times I found it really difficult to get my head around his main points.

I found that Happy Moscow was a more poignant and aesthetically stronger work. Though both books had similar motifs, Happy Moscow seemed more tightly focused on the universal themes and problems of modernity and rationality. My commentary on that novel is here

However, if one is not hesitant to read a story filled with unconventionality as well as tackle a complex blend of ideas, this book is a good choice. It is filled with interesting characters and intriguing musings upon life. 

Richard over at Caravana De Recuerdos also recently posted commentary of this novel here.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

****This Commentary contains major spoilers. I could not make the points that I wanted without giving away significant plot developments.****

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick is another book that I first read when I was much younger and that I have recently revisited. This work earned recognition as a result of the film version Blade Runner. Though I thought that the film was extraordinary, it differs enormously from the book in plot, theme and characterization. Some fans of the movie may strongly dislike this book. Those who did not like the film could potentially find a lot to like about the novel. This is a strange and oddly structured tale that likely could not work as a faithful film adaption.  

This is a novel of great philosophical and metaphysical depth and complexity. Having read Dick extensively, including his latter, aesthetically weaker but philosophically straightforward works, allowed me to interpret much of this book relatively easily. In Dick’s latter books such as VALIS, the author laid out a similar belief system as is presented here, but does so unambiguously and less allegorically. In those later books, he also specifically spelled out many of his theological and philosophical influences that are apparent here.

Written in 1968, the story takes place in the “future” world of 1992. A nuclear war has transpired. The conflict was obviously limited as there is no apparent direct physical destruction. However, radioactive dust has spread over the Earth killing an enormous proportion of humanity as well as most plants and animals. Many of the survivors have immigrated to outer space colonies. Civilization has not collapsed and technology has not disappeared, however. Earth’s remaining population inhabits the partially empty cities living with shortages but enjoying the benefits of an advanced society.

Humanity is building increasingly sophisticated androids to use as slave labor on the colony worlds. The androids occasionally rebel and return to Earth. Rick Deckard is a San Francisco based bounty hunter who is tasked at tracking down and killing escaped androids. When eight dangerous fugitive androids are reported to have arrived in the San Francisco area, Deckard is assigned the job of destroying the group. Two additional characters are introduced: Rachael Rosen, a “legal” android herself who initially offers to assist Deckard, and John Isidore, a “Special”, meaning he is a human who has been mentally damaged by radiation contamination. Isidore encounters the escaped androids and befriends them.

There is a parallel and interwoven plot. It involves a conflict that is ancient and cosmic. Dick clearly sees two forces at work in the Universe.  The first is malevolent and relates to death, nihilism, chaos and cruelty. It is generated in part by human isolation. In multiple passages Dick equates it with the silence of an empty and dead world. At one point while in his apartment, Isidore observes,

Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill. It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting. It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn’t worked in all the time Isidore had lived here. From the useless pole lamp in the living room it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-specked ceiling. It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it—the silence—meant to supplant all things tangible. Hence it assailed not only his ears but his eyes; as he stood by the inert TV set he experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive. Alive! He had often felt its austere approach before; when it came it burst in without subtlety, evidently unable to wait. The silence of the world could not rein back its greed. Not any longer. Not when it had virtually won.”

This dark force manifests itself in many cruel acts committed by both the humans and the androids. It is epitomized by the inane and mocking media personality of Buster Friendly, whose crass comedy television and radio programs are constantly broadcast throughout the Earth and the colonies. The androids too, though complex and not entirely unsympathetic, are characterized by a total lack of empathy, are mostly cruel, and are ultimately on the side of chaos and meaninglessness.

There is another force in Dick’s universe. It is a power related to kindness, perseverance, art and, most particularly, empathy. It is exemplified by a religion practiced by humans known as Mercerism. Adherents of the creed employ a device known as an Empathy Box. Users of these boxes are simultaneously linked in a kind of group vision. The vision includes an old man, Wilbur Mercer, who is continually ascending a barren hill in a desert. As Mercer climbs, he is constantly confronted by unseen tormenters who assault him with rocks. This experience engenders a feeling of compassion and group comfort for those using the box. The true origins of these visions remain a mystery. Mercerism also values empathy toward animals. Due to radiation poisoning, live animals are rare and expensive. Followers of the belief system go to great lengths and expense to own and care for all sorts of animals including goats, sheep, rabbits as well as insects and other creatures. Isidore, the moral center of the story, represents this benevolent force as he shows empathy and kindness toward all people, animals and androids, including those who are very cruel to him. At times he exhibits the ability to bring animals back from the dead.

Decker, on the other hand, sits on the cusp of these two forces. He is a follower of Mercerism, yet he realizes that both he and society as a whole are acting cruelly and in violation of the religion’s precepts by killing the androids. Throughout the book, he agonizes over what he is doing. He ranges from an incredibly empathetic person to a terribly malevolent one. Dick avoids thousands of years of cliché and does not create a linear transformation from the morally vacant to the morally redeemed for Decker. Instead he continually jumps back and forth. Ultimately, his character is complex and marvelously crafted.

Though its source remains murky, it is shown that the benevolent force of empathy ultimately cannot be defeated. When Buster Friendly seems to have successfully discredited Mercerism to the world, and Isidore is traumatized into madness by an act of cruelty committed by the androids, all of the good in the universe seems lost. However, the specter of Wilber Mercer, who moments earlier had been “proven” not to exist, descends into the “Tomb World” and rescues Isidore. Later, even the in the face of bitter disappointment and disillusionment for several characters, empathetic feelings and actions assert themselves in various unexpected and unpredictable ways.

Dick mines various theologies and philosophies to build a complex metaphysical worldview. Mercer’s ascent is obviously Christ-like. The dualism of the two forces reflects tendencies towards Manichaeism. There are multiple references to the Universe and life not being real that reminded me of Hindu belief systems. From his later writings, I know that Dick was interested in certain Gnostic beliefs. A simplified version of one such set of beliefs is that the creator of the Universe got something very wrong when fashioning the world. This manifests itself in several instances when Mercer appears in visions to both Decker and Isidore and hints that the Universe is flawed and cursed. At times we cannot help but act contrary to the empathetic way. He tells Decker, 

“You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.”

There is a lot more going on here both in terms of character and philosophy than I have touched upon, including all that I picked up and likely a lot that I did not. Some ruminations include the nature of consciousness, the allegorical meaning of religion and criticism of consumerism, to name just a few other points explored here. There are also numerous additional characters, including several of the escaped androids, which are interesting in their own right.

Though I am far from accepting Dick’s view of creation, I love this book. I must point out, however, that it is not for everyone. It is a strange story that is an odd mix of the deadly serious and the absurd. Structurally the book is unconventional. The plot takes unsettling and abrupt turns. It has two climaxes, one conventional and one spiritual, both of which occur well before the book’s end. To some extent, the ending lacks a sense of closure. Readers should not expect anything like the film. For all of its oddities, this is an imaginative science fiction and metaphysical romp with real aesthetic value. If one is interested in such things, this is a must read.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Revolutionary Characters by Gordon Wood

Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different by Gordon Wood is a book for fairly serious American Revolutionary era history buffs. If one is indeed such an aficionado, this is a thought provoking and fun read.

Wood’s book consists of a series of essays, each concerning a different major American Founder. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and Aaron Burr are all covered. For the most part, the pieces are not biographical sketches; instead they are analyses of the public personas of each of the men. Therefore, I would not recommend this book to readers who have only a cursory interest in the men or the era. Some of the essays, particularly the one that covers John Adams and his political theories, dig into fairly intricate concepts and issues of the time.

In several linking essays, Wood explains that the public image of these men was of the utmost importance both to the men themselves as well as the public at large. All of these men considered themselves enlightened gentleman of their times. The author argues that in this era, society did not look to or esteem private personalities. Thus, a “constructed” public personality, as long as it was kept consistent in public, was not considered disingenuous or undesirable; in fact, to some degree, private or inner character was disregarded as unimportant.

These men all spent their early years striving to become part of the enlightened elite. They rejected what at the time were traditional conceptions of hereditary elitism of the old aristocracy. Instead, the conception of a “gentleman” involved reaching, through one’s own devices, a level of education, morality and manors that placed a man above the masses of society.

Wood writes,

“To be a gentleman was to think and act like a gentleman, nothing more, an immensely radical belief with implications that few foresaw. It meant being reasonable, tolerant, honest, virtuous, and “candid,” an important eighteenth-century characteristic that connoted being unbiased and just as well as frank and sincere. Being a gentleman was the prerequisite to becoming a political leader. It signified being cosmopolitan, standing on elevated ground in order to have a large view of human affairs, and being free of the prejudices, parochialism, and religious enthusiasm of the vulgar and barbaric. It meant, in short, having all those characteristics that we today sum up in the idea of a liberal arts education.”

In addition to striving to attain the status of a gentleman, Wood explains that the Founders highly valued the concept of “disinterestedness”.  A virtuous leader needed to be wealthy enough that they did not need to work or even concern themselves with making money. In theory, only a person who was rich enough not to have interest in the profit motive could be trusted with the reigns of government. Not all of the Founders disliked mercantilism (some, like Thomas Jefferson, despised it) but most believed that it was inappropriate for a businessperson to be a politician.

Wood describes this concept,

“We today have lost most of this earlier meaning. Even educated people now use disinterested as a synonym for uninterested, meaning “indifferent or unconcerned.” It is almost as if we cannot quite imagine someone who is capable of rising above a pecuniary interest and being unselfish or impartial where an interest might be present.

In the eighteenth-century Anglo-American world gentlemen believed that only independent individuals, free of interested ties and paid by no masters, could practice such virtue. It was thought that those who had occupations and had to work strenuously for a living lacked the leisure for virtuous public leadership.”

Within this framework of a disinterested gentleman, all of the Founders, either through their own machinations or through external impositions, had constructed public personas. These characters, how they came to be, what they represented, how they affected history, etc. are generally the subjects of Wood’s essays. Each piece digs fairly deep into the analysis of Wood’s subject. Having read fairly extensively on these men and the era previously, I feel that Wood’s essays provided depth as well as both familiar and unique perspectives, though I do not agree with all of Wood’s conclusions.

One of many interesting points here was that there were always exceptions to the rules. Wood argues that Paine’s public persona did not fit that of a gentleman and Burr’s persona did not appear to be “disinterested.”

As one final irony pointed out by Wood, the nation and society that these men helped to create, that of powerful mercantile interests, an economy propelled by the acquisition of material goods and common people (though only white males) participating in political and social discussion and debate, had little interest in electing disinterested gentleman as political leaders. Thus, Wood convincingly argues that all subsequent generations of American political leaders were of a very different breed from that of the Founders.

Though not an introduction to the American Founders, this work provides important and, at least for me, intriguing information on the personalities, philosophies, perceptions and accomplishments of these very important people. There are a lot of detailed and interesting musings within the essays that I cannot come close to delving into within a single blog post. Highly recommended for those interested in the period as well as in the history of government.

The Following Posts cover related subjects:

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph Ellis

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg

Thomas Jefferson:The Art of Power by John Meacham

Radicalism and the American Revolution by Gordon Wood

Reading Gordon Wood