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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Book Review: Capital, Vol 1 by Karl Marx

Capital, Vol 1: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist ProductionCapital, Vol 1: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production by Karl Marx

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you get to the point does that make you bourgeoisie?

Karl Marx’s classic text is a historical, economic, sociological, and philosophical work. Marx tries to show the ways in which workers are exploited by the capitalist mode of production and argues that the capitalist system is ultimately unstable because it cannot endlessly sustain profits. And this takes 1,100 pages to say.

Since it has become popular to call anyone left of a third-generation venture capitalist with their cash in the Caymans and their Nazi gold in a Swiss vault, I thought it was time to read some Marx. That way when people call someone a Post-Modern Marxist Communist I’ll have some idea of how little they know what any of those words mean.

I was actually surprised by this book since it was completely different from what I had expected. The sort of book I had been expecting was a philosophical or ethics text, instead, this is much more a history and economics book. The historical notes documented in Das Kapital are worth reading alone. They act as a reminder of what working/slavery conditions were deemed acceptable, and how similar the arguments from then are to the defences of sweatshops in poorer nations today.

But this book takes the long way round to make its points. If it had instead made its arguments and then offered up one example, then some appendixes, I’d have “enjoyed” this more. Too often it gets bogged down in labouring* the point rather than documenting history or encouraging you to join a union. Worth reading, but be prepared for a lot of waffle.

*Ahhhh, puns.

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Book Review: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

MeditationsMeditations by Marcus Aurelius

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“To read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book.”

[Insert superficial overview of Meditations here]

Meditations were something Marcus (we’re on a first name basis here) wrote for his own moral improvement, to remind himself of and cement the Stoic doctrines he wanted to live by. Things like the world is governed by Providence (which certainly lets him off the hook for all those people fed to the lions during his reign); that happiness lies in virtue and your will to follow it; and that you should not be angry at others. Journalling of this sort was something Epictetus advised, which has resulted in a collection of notes, reminders, aphorisms, and slogans for every occasion.

There is a lot to like about Meditations. It felt like a self-help book but written with a more philosophical bent and less of the “you too can achieve greatness (and give me lots of money) if you follow my twelve rules for life”. It isn’t without problems, such as those outlined in Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. I also found Marcus’ musings on the Deliberative Content Problem to swing between ideas and thus come off as confused.

This is my second major reading of Stoic philosophy. I’m coming to the conclusion that Stoicism does seem to have a lot to offer.

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Book review: An Introduction to Greek Philosophy by David Roochnik

An Introduction to Greek PhilosophyAn Introduction to Greek Philosophy by David Roochnik

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If Western Philosophy is just footnotes to Plato, does that mean western society is just all Greek to us?

Professor Roochnik presents 24 lectures as an introductory course to Greek Philosophy… as it says in the title. This was quite a good overview of the pre-Socratics, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Like any lecture, insights are given into the further scholarship that can inform a topic – such as how Plato structures his writing so as to make you think rather than tell you what he thinks – and some points are hammered repeatedly for the sleepy students in the back row.

Having recently read The Republic, the insights this book offered would have been handy beforehand. The advantage of having a philosophy professor step you through philosophy rather than just winging it yourself is well worth it. So as a background pre-reading, this is a good place to start.

I was also reminded during one of the earlier chapters of how much knowledge has been lost to history. We have this common misconception about great works rising to the top and being revered through the ages. But the example of the prolific writer Democritus whose works have largely been lost shows us how even recognised intellectual giants can’t be guaranteed their works will be preserved.

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Book Review: The Republic by Plato

The RepublicThe Republic by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Old white guys sit around discussing how to set up a totalitarian military state with them as the rulers.

Plato’s famous text covers a lot of ground as it tries to establish what justice is. It covers politics, personal and political ethics, idealised states (democracy ranks third out of four), education, and virtue. The Republic is a heady read, whilst being fascinating.

The strawman style to the interlocuter dialogue did annoy me as a reader. Whilst it was in service of making a larger point, it did make the discourse feel more shallow than it is. Plato’s thinking was also amazingly progressive for an age that predates the enlightenment by the best part of a millennium. But this thinking was also confined by the times.

Plato, along with Socrates and Aristotle, were the drivers behind western society. Books like The Republic put forward a lot of ideas for discussion and dissection, opening the dialogue that would lead to progress. That alone makes The Republic worth reading, but I also found it was worth reading if only to see much of it in context rather than discussed second-hand. E.g. The famous allegory of the cave takes on a slightly different light when not viewed in isolation.

For a more detailed understanding:
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-ethics-politics/

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Book review: How to be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern LifeHow to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m still unclear if reading for pleasure is virtuous. I’m going to pretend that it is.

The former biologist and current philosopher, Massimo Pigliucci, guides us through stoicism and lots of conversations with his imaginary friend, Epictetus. I probably shouldn’t write book blurbs, because this was way more interesting than my previous sentence implies.

Before reading this book, my only understandings of stoicism came from Bertrand Russell. That is to say, I had a snarky and somewhat dismissive understanding of stoicism because Russell wasn’t a fan. Massimo dispelled my misunderstandings and also showed how stoicism could be applied to modern life. Book title goal achieved!

There are two highlights from this book. The first is that Massimo has managed to communicate his philosophy clearly and in a way that I think most people would be able to understand and engage with. The second is that he also manages to upsell readers on the idea of becoming a stoic. I’m not saying I’m rushing out to join Cult Stoic, but there are a lot of good ideas here for people to learn.

stoic-decision-making

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Further reading:
https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/
https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/bertrand-russell-got-stoicism-seriously-wrong/
https://www.reddit.com/r/Stoicism/comments/zblu2/criticisms_of_stoicism_from_bertrand_russells/
https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/9271/how-might-one-counter-bertrand-russells-criticism-of-stoicism-as-not-true-and