Book review: Discourse on the Origin of Inequality by Jean Jacques Rousseau

Discourse on the Origin of InequalityDiscourse on the Origin of Inequality by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Natural man vs Social man: there can be only one winner!

In 1754, the Academy of Dijon held a competition to answer the question, “What is the origin of inequality among people, and is it authorized by natural law?” In response, Rousseau wrote his famous Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. No one remembers the first prize winner.*

As one of the early Enlightenment thinkers, and as someone who inspired the French Revolution, Rousseau was/is an important philosopher. This work on equality is certainly one filled with important thoughts on how inequality isn’t just about natural differences between people** but is about society itself creating inequality. I would interpret this as the powerful/wealthy structuring society to benefit themselves, but an argument could be made for those with the will to power.

The main issue I had with this book was that much of the argument is based upon a flawed evolution of “man”. While I don’t think this undermines his points, it does highlight how far our understanding of humanity, our evolution, and our social bonds has improved.

The version I read of this book had a biography and philosophic overview of the work by Israel Bouseman. This was an excellent addition. It did highlight the flawed knowledge of human evolution, however, it failed to note the now known social aspects of humanity that negate some of the points made.

I’d recommend reading the Bouseman edition of this book whilst trying to contextualise the ideas within our more advanced understanding of human evolution.

Further reading: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ro…

*I tell a lie, it was François Xavier Talbert.
**Rousseau refers to men only, specifically European men. Women are lesser beings, and non-Europeans are savages. I found it unclear whether that makes the savages natural men or something beneath that. This is made more unclear by the common false attribution of the Noble Savage trope to Rousseau.

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Book review: Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray

Antifa: The Anti-Fascist HandbookAntifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Is it okay to punch Nazis? What if I told you that is only one of the tactics for dealing with Nazis?

The Anti-Fascist Handbook aims to summarise the history of fascism and its opponents, the rise of more recent fascist groups, the lessons from history for dealing with fascism, the issue of “free speech” and fascism, and how to combat fascism today. Historian Mark Bray has detailed the tactics of the Antifa movement and the philosophy behind it through interviews and the compilation of history and research into fascism.

I’ve noticed that there are several topics that seem to be widely discussed but never with any actual knowledge. Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and other social movements are prime examples. So when I saw Ollie from Philosophy Tube’s video discussing this book (and other related work) I knew that Bray’s book on Antifa would be another of my must reads.

I think one of the most important takeaways from this book is that the rise of fascism to power hasn’t historically required huge support, just a lot of apathy from the masses. Too often debates will rage around “free speech” or “is it okay to punch a Nazis” while completely missing the point that fascists are loving being legitimised with any of these debates.

The five important lessons (my summary of the headings):

  1. Fascist revolutions have never succeeded, they gained power legally.
  2. Many interwar leaders and theorists did not take fascism seriously enough until it was too late. (Sound familiar?)
  3. Political leaders/groups are often slower to react to fascism than those on the ground.
  4. Fascism steals from left ideology, strategy, imagery, and culture (e.g. the liberal idea of “free speech”).
  5. It doesn’t take many fascists to make fascism (Overton windows shift easily).

Whilst this was a very interesting and important book, it wasn’t perfect. The coverage of fascism outside of Europe was limited; something Bray acknowledged he wasn’t going to cover in detail and would have been a nice addition – something for the next instalment perhaps. Also, the defining traits of fascism were clearly made, but the differences between groups that fall under that banner, or are adjacent (and thus facilitate normalisation), weren’t discussed. I would have found it interesting to have the discussion of how alt-right and alt-lite differ and how you combat the latter. Minor points that might be in future editions.

So before you next hear a professional opinion-haver brand Antifa as terrorists, it would be worth reading this book.

Philosophy Tube video:

Alt-lite influence: https://datasociety.net/wp-content/up…

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Book Review: The Way of Zen by Alan Watts

The Way of ZenThe Way of Zen by Alan W. Watts

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When you sit, sit. When you browse Twitter, browse Twitter… Maybe there’s a reason social media causes stress.

The Way of Zen by Alan Watts is an introduction to Zen Buddism and its roots in Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism. It was one of the first books of its kind and tries to explain “Eastern” concepts to a “Western” audience.

After my forays into various “Western” philosophers and philosophies, I thought it was time to investigate some others that weren’t just footnotes to Plato. Having already read the Dao De Jing and a more modern guide to Zen, I thought reading a bit more on Zen would be interesting. Watts certainly covers some quite different ground to Zen in the Age of Anxiety and puts the Dao in more context.

This was certainly less of a philosophy text and more of an overview or introduction to Zen. One of Watts’ central aims was to make sure the reader understood how the “Western” philosophical tradition has a strict adherence to certain logical structures which the “Eastern” philosophies like Zen do not. This was certainly an important distinction and something that must have helped popularise Zen Buddhism outside of the “East”.

 

I will have to explore this topic further.

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Book review: Zen in the Age of Anxiety by Tim Burkett

Zen in the Age of AnxietyZen in the Age of Anxiety by Tim Burkett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Clear your mind, relax, and read this review.

Zen in the Age of Anxiety is a guidebook and teaching manual that focuses on how to deal with stress, anxiety, and address the underlying mental behaviours that cause them. Burkett lays out the teachings and key points with easy to follow explanations and a series of anecdotes from his +50 years as a Zen practitioner and draws on his background in psychology.

This was a very interesting book. I originally borrowed a copy from the library because I’d previously read Lao Tzu’s Dao De Jing. Okay, a bit of a leap between the two, but Zen teachings have their roots in Buddhism, which in turn has roots in the Dao (Tao), something Burkett mentions in passing. There are a lot of helpful insights and practices in this book that could help most people in their lives. At the very least, it was interesting to read something with such a different perspective on life.

My only gripe was a minor one. A lot of practices and philosophies, especially those with “Eastern” origins, tend to be tied up with spiritualism and mysticism. As a result, there tends to be a blending of nonsense (both ancient and modern) with the good stuff. As an example, in a later chapter, there is an example given that involves an analogy with how vaccines and homoeopathy work. Except that it incorrectly describes how vaccines work, and incorrectly describes homoeopathy as working at all. So best to use a critical eye when reading.

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Book Review: Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition

Great Minds of the Western Intellectual TraditionGreat Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition by Darren M. Staloff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

That moment when you realise there is an age-old profession for people who want to tell others that their way of thinking is the best.

Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition is an 84 lecture course on Western Philosophy. It covers the usual suspects while drawing in contemporary or subsequent criticisms, and it also adds in a few more modern thinkers (see links below for the full list). There is the added benefit that no one lecturer covers more than a few topics, so you get many perspectives and expert insights.

I’ve been on the road a lot lately and so +40 hours of audiobook seemed like a suitable way to keep myself entertained. There is also a good chance I learnt something, even if that thing was that even university lecturers pronounce Satre and Nietzsche incorrectly, just like everyone else.

It’s hard to offer up a substantial review of such a diverse mix of topics, lectures, lecturers, and background reading. I think some of the material was presented without enough critical examination (e.g. Nozik’s propositions are only dealt with on a superficial level and aren’t critiqued for how easily they would break down thanks to power accumulation), whilst other parts offered insights I wouldn’t have made otherwise (e.g. Nietzsche’s Ubermensch is clarified as being about “your best self”, which makes his work much more palatable).

The summary I’d offer is that I feel more educated. Do the course and you’ll understand how hilarious that sentence is.

The course: https://www.thegreatcourses.com.au/co…
The list of lectures included: https://www.scribd.com/doc/159220021/…

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Book review: Political Ideals by Bertrand Russell

Political IdealsPolitical Ideals by Bertrand Russell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading old books reminds you that nothing has changed.

Political Ideals is an essay Bertrand Russell wrote during World War 1 – stay tuned for WW3 – that offers critiques of capitalism, socialism, nationalism, politics, education, and offers insights into how we should go about building a better society. He does this in less than 100 pages.

Russell’s essay is filled with interesting and insightful ideas. Even if you disagree with any of them, there is value in engaging with what he is saying. E.g.:

“Few men seem to realize how many of the evils from which we suffer are wholly unnecessary, and that they could be abolished by a united effort within a few years. If a majority in every civilized country so desired, we could, within twenty years, abolish all abject poverty, quite half the illness in the world, the whole economic slavery which binds down nine-tenths of our population; we could fill the world with beauty and joy, and secure the reign of universal peace. It is only because men are apathetic that this is not achieved, only because imagination is sluggish, and what always has been is regarded as what always must be. With good-will, generosity, intelligence, these things could be brought about.” Source.

This quote has been paraphrased, rephrased, and appropriated by many in the last century (although, I’m sure these thoughts weren’t original when he wrote them). It shows Russell’s reputation as a founder of modern analytic philosophy and as having made significant contributions to many subjects is well deserved. Few could so concisely state such a complex social idea.

Worth a read, even if you disagree with Russell on some or all points.

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