Year in Review

This year I only read 12 books, which is about halfway from what I originally hoped to reach of 25, and a far cry from the 50 that I used to be able to reach in my unencumbered twenties. One reason I am not reading a lot of books these days is that a large part of my life is focused on my children, my job, and my wife. These are all good things of course, but as I am finding lately, especially with the birth of my second child, doesn’t leave a lot of time for reading or engaging in one’s own interests.

Books Read in 2019

1) Table Talk Essays by William Hazlitt

A book of essay on all sorts of topics, but especially art and life.

https://consolationofreading.wordpress.com/2019/04/21/table-talk-essays-on-men-and-manners-by-william-hazlitt/

2) Masterpiece by Elise Broach

A children’s novel about a talking beetle with amazing artistic ability who befriends a shy young boy. Together they solve the mystery of a missing Dürer drawing from an art museum.

3) How Oscar Índigo Broke the Universe by David Teague

Oscar uses a device that stops time to cheat and hit a home run, but after using this top secret device to become the hometown baseball hero the universe and time itself start to unravel and he must find a way to fix it.

4) Agnes Gray by Anne Bronte

One part fictional expose on the Life of a governess and the way rich families mistreat them, one part argument that virtue and simple values of kindness as illustrated by Agnes are superior to marrying for money and titles. Also, in youth, the rich and poor have illusions about what life will be like versus the crueler reality.

5) Micromegas by Voltaire

Voltaire’s science fiction novel about two alien explorers whose discussions delve into the relative nature of our worries and concerns such as our length of life, which as the book points out varies drastically from alien species to alien species, yet nobody is satisfied even if they lived a thousand years longer than some other species, These extraterrestrial visitors comment on major philosophical traditions they find on earth, only to impart the “true” meaning of life when they finally depart the planet by leaving a blank book.

6) Zadig by Voltaire

Zadig features a virtuous character who follows the principles of Zoroastrianism living in ancient Babylon. This man of virtue finds himself trying to battle with the whims of fortune. His first love leaves him after his eye is injured protecting her, a jealous neighbor tries to frame him for poetry that is supposedly treasonous, but in reality turns out to be complimentary of the king, and he ends up escaping from imminent death when the same king, who takes him on as an advisor, grows jealous of his secret love for the queen even though Zadig suppresses his feelings because of his immense virtue, which leads him to become enslaved, and so on, until Zadig becomes king and eventually marries the queen. At some point he meets a strange wise man who turns out to secretly be an angel. This angel informs him that while it may seem like fortune is random that in truth every event and action has a purpose and we are brought into the lives of others to help them in their troubles. This idea seems to contradict Voltaire’s later novel, Candide, which challenges the idea that this is the best of all worlds and everything good or bad happen for the best under the eyes of a benevolent omniscient being. It also seems to argue that in the face of misfortune which we cannot understand the best a human being can do is maintain their virtue and excellent qualities.

7) Mr. Lemoncello’s All-Star Breakout Game by Chris Grabenstein

4th book in this series about escape rooms, puzzle games, and cutting edge libraries designed by a Willy Wonka-esque game maker named Mr. Lemoncello. Characters who participated in the competitions of previous book return once again to compete on television in Fiction Puzzle Game using an advanced holographic simulator and must progress through different types of fiction story simulations in order to attain clues to escape the library, while competing against other teams. I like this one better than some of the other sequels because it brings back and focuses on key characters from the original book instead of less interesting character added in the other sequels and develops them further in new and interesting ways.

8) Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Chinese immigrant family run a motel, while trying to survive in America and escape from being exploited. Good YA book about the immigrant experience.

9) Civil Disobedience by Thoreau

https://consolationofreading.wordpress.com/2019/08/15/civil-disobedience-by-henry-david-thoreau/

10) Walden by Thoreau

https://consolationofreading.wordpress.com/2019/06/05/walden-by-henry-thoreau/

11) Coming out Christian in the Roman World by Douglas Boin

https://consolationofreading.wordpress.com/2019/05/16/coming-out-christian-in-the-roman-world-how-the-followers-of-jesus-made-a-place-in-caesars-empire-by-douglas-boin/

12) The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce.

A humorous dictionary of satirical and cynical definitions. I really enjoyed this one. It goes to show great literature doesn’t need to be a story narrative or a poem., and even a dictionary can be fun to read! Some favorites entries include:

ABSURDITY, n. A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one’s own opinion.

ACADEME, n. An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught.

ACADEMY, n. [from ACADEME] A modern school where football is taught.

BACCHUS, n. A convenient deity invented by the ancients as an excuse for getting drunk.

BOUNDARY, n. In political geography, an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of the other.

CANNON, n. An instrument employed in the rectification of national boundaries.

COMMERCE, n. A kind of transaction in which A plunders from B the goods of C, and for compensation B picks the pocket of D of money belonging to E.

CONSERVATIVE, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

DISTANCE, n. The only thing that the rich are willing for the poor to call theirs, and keep.

ELOQUENCE, n. The art of orally persuading fools that white is the color that it appears to be. It includes the gift of making any color appear white

FUTURE, n. That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured.

IDIOT, n. A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling. The Idiot’s activity is not confined to any special field of thought or action, but “pervades and regulates the whole.” He has the last word in everything; his decision is unappealable. He sets the fashions and opinion of taste, dictates the limitations of speech and circumscribes conduct with a dead-line

LOVE, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage or by removal of the patient from the influences under which he incurred the disorder. This disease, like caries and many other ailments, is prevalent only among civilized races living under artificial conditions; barbarous nations breathing pure air and eating simple food enjoy immunity from its ravages. It is sometimes fatal, but more frequently to the physician than to the patient.

NOVEL, n. A short story padded.

PHILOSOPHY, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.

POLITICS, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

RESPONSIBILITY, n. A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one’s neighbor. In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star.

Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau.

“No man with a genius for legislation has appeared in America. They are rare in the history of the world. There are orators, politicians, and eloquent men, by the thousand; but the speaker has not yet opened his mouth to speak who is capable of settling the much-vexed questions of the day. We love eloquence for its own sake, and not for any truth which it may utter, or any heroism it may inspire. Our legislators have not yet learned the comparative value of free-trade and of freedom, of union, and of rectitude, to a nation.”

Thoreau writes a political treatise on government and individual rights. His major argument is that we have a moral obligation not to follow laws or give our support to governments that violate our moral conscience.

In his mind, governments, even democratic and representative ones, are by their very nature coercive. They force us to follow rules and laws that others create for us and usually legislate these rules based on the will of the majority. The problem is that the minority might have the morally correct view on an issue or an individual might find a law morally repugnant based on the dictates of their own conscience, but still be forced to abide by the laws created by the majority even if they strongly disagree with them. All governments, even the most democratic, by necessity protect their own interests and the views of the current majority. Governments make laws not because they are virtuous and wise or ruled by those who are virtuous and wise, but simply because they have the power to do so. For this reason, Thoreau argues that the best government is the one that interferes the least; indeed, Thoreau even argues that the best governments would allow people to choose not to participate in them or be ruled by them as long as they lived peaceably beside them as ideal neighbors.

As Thoreau notes, though, too often the justification for government is expediency; it allows us to get things accomplished that can be difficult to achieve easily on our own and so even when governments enact laws we find immoral or violate our most fundamental values we mindlessly accept them to get on with business and fulfill our own needs.

Laws try to legislate behavior, but laws don’t actually make citizens more moral. Thoreau recognizes that you cannot legislate morality. Often governments and the laws they create can even make us do many immoral things in the name of the law.

“Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”

Soldiers serving the state often fight wars against their wills and natural inclinations, robbing them of their conscientiousness and individuality as if they were nothing more than machines to be programmed in the state’s interest.

“The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, &c. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw, or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others, as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders, serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the State with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated by it as enemies.”

Serving the government or blindly following laws transforms men into automatons. We cannot be virtuous and true to ourselves living so blindly and thoughtlessly. Thoreau argues citizens ought to seriously consider each law and dictate if the state and must do what they consider morally right rather than obey a law or policy that violates their conscience.

“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right.”

Likewise, he argues that all men have the right to refuse allegiance to a government they find immoral or inadequate for their needs.

“All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.”

It doesn’t help anyone simply to hold an opinion against something. We must be willing to act on our deeply held principles.

“There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing;”

Many people think they can convince others to change their minds and thus change society from the inside out by convincing others through speeches and voting in elections or petitioning government representatives. People who do these things often feel they are doing their part, which usually involves transforming the opinions and pushing the views of the minority to become that of the majority. This method can take a long time to produce any real change though. Likewise, it is easy to blame politicians in South Carolina for supporting slavery, while doing nothing in places like Massachusetts where the people may claim to hate slavery and be against it, but will not legislate or take concrete actions against slavery if it requires them to sacrifice financial deals with the south. Basically people are willing to protest things they find unfair or unjust so long as it doesn’t cost them anything.

Voting against or for something doesn’t represent a principled stand as it requires the majority to agree with us and costs us nothing. It’s an ineffectual method of social change as the majority must align with us and finish the task; if they don’t, then we can shrug and claim we did our part, while affecting no real social change against the immoral action, while in many instances still supporting the government and its policy indirectly through our taxes.

“The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men.

We can only make real change by following up our principles with action. With that said, Thoreau isn’t saying we have a moral obligation to fight for every cause.

“It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.”

The causes that matter to us will depend on our own guiding principles. Likewise, we do have the right to spend our time pursuing our own interests. We don’t have to fight against every injustice, but we also shouldn’t support indirectly those who perpetuate them. We do have a moral obligation to do no harm and not pursue our own interests at the expense of others. In other words, we don’t have to actively fight every injustice, but we also should do our best not to give any support to it either. Given all this, how should we battle injustice and not give it our support?

Instead of trying to convince others or use our vote as an ineffectual way of enacting social change, Thoreau advocates that we should withhold our tax money in protest of policies we disagree with. He points out that even if we refuse to serve in a military expedition ourselves because we find the war immoral, if that same person continues to pay taxes to the government who is funding the expedition, then we are still supporting it and merely paying for someone else to take our place. In Thoreau’s view this is no real protest at all!

For this reason, Thoreau thinks it disgraceful to accept the American government as his own because it supports slavery and the Mexican War, which he finds morally abhorrent.

Governments tend to punish disobedience like not paying taxes in protest that they support immoral laws. The goal of such punishment is to make men fear disobeying the laws and government policies. Unable to change the spirit, your actual thoughts, feelings, and idea on a topic, they usually try to control you through your body by incarcerating someone in jail.

Thoreau follows his own advice by putting his principles in action. He tells us about a time he allowed himself to be jailed rather than pay a poll tax to the government whose policies he found immoral.

“When I came out of prison,—for some one interfered, and paid the tax,—I did not perceive that great changes had taken place on the common, such as he observed who went in a youth, and emerged a gray-headed man; and yet a change had to my eyes come over the scene,—the town, and State, and country,—greater than any that mere time could effect. I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived. I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only; that they did not greatly purpose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions, as the Chinamen and Malays are; that, in their sacrifices to humanity they ran no risks, not even to their property; that, after all, they were not so noble but they treated the thief as he had treated them, and hoped, by a certain outward observance and a few prayers, and by walking in a particular straight though useless path from time to time, to save their souls. This may be to judge my neighbors harshly; for I believe that most of them are not aware that they have such an institution as the jail in their village.”

Eventually he is let out of jail because one of his neighbors paid the tax for him. Thoreau points out that the person who paid the tax did so from the mistaken belief that their private sentiments and feelings outweigh the public good. He would be glad to pay taxes and obey the laws of the state if he found them reasonable, but he won’t pay taxes if it supports action and policies that go against his conscience. It is the individual that gives justification for the existence of a state and individual rights should be enshrined at the heart of any just government.

Walden by Henry Thoreau

In Walden, Thoreau recounts his days living alone in the woods for two years and two months on the edge of Walden Pond as an experiment on modes of living, which ended September 6th, 1847.

In this work, Thoreau demonstrates that you need a lot less to survive and thrive in life than society would have you believe. Often the rich and poor live in a state of discontentment because they have lost sight with what truly matters in life, but as Thoreau tries to show we are not trapped in these state of affairs if we choose to change them.

In many ways the rich are worse off than the poor. The rich spend their days acquiring material luxuries, while losing their freedom and genuine joys to their labor and toil, to the responsibilities and necessities of making a living in the world. Their acquisition of wealth only creates new artificial and unnecessary worries for themselves as they must manage such large estates and businesses, worry about the bottom line, and waste their wealth on meaningless and empty luxuries. It leaves such people in a state of “keeping up with the Jones.” Thoreau argues this is no way to live life.

“Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine.”

The poor also inevitably lead dishonest lives in order to eat and live at the expense of others. In order to live and survive, they must live on credit and grovel to others who have wealth, which prevents them from being their real selves. They essentially must live in a constant state of dishonesty to get ahead in life or simply survive. Rich or poor, too often people live their entire lives unhappy, desperate for change, but unsure how to proceed. Even our entertainments are merely covers to fill our sense of misery and unhappiness.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

Human Beings do not have to live their lives this way; we can always change and remove our prejudices. We shouldn’t follow ways of life and ideas simply because they are old since it would never allow us to experiment and try new things or different methods of living one’s life, which may improve ourselves and the majority of humanity.

“Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new. Old people did not know enough once, perchance, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire a-going; new people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people, as the phrase is. Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost.”

He wants to consider what is actually necessary for life once you remove civilization and social expectations from the equation. Animals typically only require food and shelter. For humans, our needs seem to be good shelter, clothing, and fuel. He advocates living a more frugal and minamalist lifestyle. We can only experience inward growth and development by casting away outward luxuries since we can only know what we truly need and come to know ourselves by casting away all that is external and superfluous.

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward. We know not much about them. It is remarkable that we know so much of them as we do. The same is true of the more modern reformers and benefactors of their race. None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty. Of a life of luxury the fruit is luxury, whether in agriculture, or commerce, or literature, or art. There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”

The life Thoreau lives in Walden represents him living out his philosophical ideas and putting them into action. They’re more than just an untested theory of living; they’re based on lived experience. He claims it required only six weeks of labor to maintain himself and fulfill all his needs, leaving him with plenty of leisure time. The key is to live a simpler life, unworried about acquiring wealth and luxury, or the politics of the day, or what your neighbor thinks. In some ways, life is easier than we think and often all we do is complicate matters.

“In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial. It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.”

We shouldn’t live by society’s expectations or the wisdom that says things have always been this way. We should live deliberately, following our own dreams, and experimenting with our own lifestyles.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

His method of living minimalistically in the woods allowed him to reduce life to its bare minimum in order to discover its foundations, identify what one really needs in life to thrive and survive, and be happy. We must become a seer of the world around us, pay attention to nature and our feelings once outside society to ascertain what really matters, and what brings us pleasure and joy once outside society’s expectation giving us false perceptions of what should bring us happiness. Nature, both observable yet mysterious, is capable of providing spiritual truths about the self and hinting at the Divine. In a sense, we must live in the moment and pay attention to the natural world and try to sustain ourselves with our work undistracted by any other task or thought.

With this in mind he is advocating for a limited solitude in which we have plenty of time to ourselves out in nature in order to contemplate life, truth, society, ourselves, and the world, to see what is transcendent in nature and life once you remove all the external trappings of human society.

The society of town is replaced by the society of nature. Even in solitude, we are never really alone, surrounded by animals and other living things, and their sounds and constant pressence. We only truly appreciate this wildlife when we cultivate a solitude away from humanity and society. Now animals aren’t something to hunt with friends or prizes to display for sport, but they are our companions and source of entertainment during our daily observations (the joy of watching a bird fly from tree to tree instead of hunting one!). Nevertheless, although it is important to cultivate solitude and free time in nature, we shouldn’t overdue it.

We are social creatures; it is important to have guests who can be our equals who may offer us philosophical perspectives and ideas to contemplate that help us think in new directions and grow. Likewise, even striving for minimalism, it is important to be generous and offer hospitality to our friends and visitors. Hospitality is a virtue in its own right and doesn’t require massive wealth. Indeed, like the epicureans, Thoreau shows real hospitality is more about time spent with friends in good conversation and genuine pleasure in each others company than fancy meals or extravagent gifts. In other words, although Thoreau removed himself from the everyday world and expectations of society, he didn’t completely divorce himself from friends, neighbors, and connections with humanity.

For Thoreau, farming is a sacred act which brings us closest to a symbiosis with nature. It helps us return to our roots and ancient primal human experience. He transforms the act of hoeing beans into an mythological struggle of self-improvement. Living off the land in this way is as important in understanding and experiencing nature as listening to the sounds of birds chirping or appreciating the aesthetic pleasure of water rippling under the wind. Contemplating nature helps us experience the divine and God. All nature is the artistic work of God; to contemplate and enjoy it is to experience the Divine’s greatest work. Nature is not some dead thing to be studied in the laboratory, but a living and inspiring force, a source of poetry and beauty and wonder and philosophical musing. To enjoy and experience nature is to know God whose artistry is superior to any artificial and artistic creation of humanity.

“Thus it seemed that this one hillside illustrated the principle of all the operations of Nature. The Maker of this earth but patented a leaf. What Champollion will decipher this hieroglyphic for us, that we may turn over a new leaf at last? This phenomenon is more exhilarating to me than the luxuriance and fertility of vineyards. True, it is somewhat excrementitious in its character, and there is no end to the heaps of liver lights and bowels, as if the globe were turned wrong side outward; but this suggests at least that Nature has some bowels, and there again is mother of humanity. This is the frost coming out of the ground; this is Spring. It precedes the green and flowery spring, as mythology precedes regular poetry. I know of nothing more purgative of winter fumes and indigestions. It convinces me that Earth is still in her swaddling clothes, and stretches forth baby fingers on every side. Fresh curls spring from the baldest brow. There is nothing inorganic. These foliaceous heaps lie along the bank like the slag of a furnace, showing that Nature is “in full blast” within. The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit,—not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic. Its throes will heave our exuviæ from their graves. You may melt your metals and cast them into the most beautiful moulds you can; they will never excite me like the forms which this molten earth flows out into. And not only it, but the institutions upon it, are plastic like clay in the hands of the potter.”

The ancients celebrated entire religious festivals around farming and the growing of crops, more directly connecting their spiritual selves with their farming activity. If we do it well we become a part of nature and live in harmony with it, but it is an activity that can easily degenerate into making profits and accumulating wealth. Commerce in farming not only degrades the act spiritually, but also sensually. To illustrate this point, he gives an example of eating huckleberries right from their source, noting that people in Boston who eat them after they have been shipped a long distance by a farmer trying to make a profit, have never really tasted a huckleberry because the taste changes and is adulterated by the distance and time to transport them. Nature and human institutions are constantly changing. Nature is endlessly beautiful because it is so varied and constantly changes, while human institutions lack deeper value precisely because they are so ephemeral.

“Ancient poetry and mythology suggest, at least, that husbandry was once a sacred art; but it is pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and large crops merely. We have no festival, nor procession, nor ceremony, not excepting our Cattle-shows and so called Thanksgivings, by which the farmer expresses a sense of the sacredness of his calling, or is reminded of its sacred origin. It is the premium and the feast which tempt him. He sacrifices not to Ceres and the Terrestrial Jove, but to the infernal Plutus rather. By avarice and selfishness, and a grovelling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives. He knows Nature but as a robber.”

To try to make a profit or living from nature alienates us from nature. We can’t really appreciate and care for nature, be a steward for it, if all we care about is making a profit from her since we don’t care or appreciate it for its own sake, but only for the sake of the wealth it might bring us. Of course, one might disagree and say having a financial interest and making a profit would naturally make a farmer or businessmen care more about nature’s well-being for the sake of his sustaining his profits and livelihood. Likewise, living in this way provides a partial solution to poverty and fears about theft. Thoreau was not too concerned with strangers visiting his place while he was away in town or visiting other places; he argues it is only excessive accumulation of wealth and goods that encourage people who possess little to engage in criminality. If men lived simply, only taking what they needed instead of trying to accumulate massive amounts of wealth or simply more than they need, then we would have no need for criminality. People wouldn’t lack the ability to meet their own needs and there wouldn’t be any excess wealth for people to steal. Thoreau shows his mode of living in the book requires very little startup money to get started and thus is available to most impoverished people if they were willing to put in the effort to change their lot and follow his path.

What he lacks in money he makes up in time spent enjoying the beauty of nature and being inspired by the natural world around him spiritually and artistically.

“After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what—how—when—where? But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight. The snow lying deep on the earth dotted with young pines, and the very slope of the hill on which my house is placed, seemed to say, Forward! Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask. She has long ago taken her resolution.”

Thoreau comes to realizes that before the constant presence of nature away from human society, the most essential questions of humanity about purpose and meaning are meaningless. To exist and enjoy Nature is the answer to these questions. We are as much a part of nature as any other animal and it is easy to forget this living in civilization. He also is arguing that Nature is not there to reveal some deeper human truth about meaning and purpose, but rather it has value in itself. Even if it did have secrets to reveal about human existence it would not tell us so directly; as Thoreau hints it is only indirectly by appreciating it for its own sake and allowing us to be away from human society that it can shed light on on what is eternal and constant once we step away from human society and we can come to know our own authentic thoughts devoid of social expectations; the truths it offers is the fresh and new perspective it allows away from human institutions and the indirect experience of the divine.

“If you would learn to speak all tongues and conform to the customs of all nations, if you would travel farther than all travellers, be naturalized in all climes, and cause the Sphinx to dash her head against a stone, even obey the precept of the old philosopher, and Explore thyself.”

Our real goal should be to escape from society and live as close as possible in nature with as little need as possible from the social world in order to truly come to know ourselves, our authentic interests and needs, and not what society tells us we require. Our primary mission in life should be to come to know thyself. He went to the woods to help discover himself, to live other lives and explore other paths and possibilities. We can only come to know others and the world in all its forms by coming to know ourselves.

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.”

If we live deliberately we can fulfill our dreams and live our best lives. We shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with our own lives and make substantial changes if only just to try it out. Maybe we will decide it is not for us, but at least then we tried and learned this truth for ourselves.

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Coming out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar’s Empire by Douglas Boin

Douglas Boin has written a history geared towards a general audience in order to correct the misconception that all Christians in the ancient world were intolerant towards non-Christians and hated Graeco-Roman culture. In the book, he attempts to tell the story of the lives of early Christians who lived hybrid-lives; those Christians who saw themselves as both Romans and Christians.

Much of our evidence about these Christians come from Paul’s letters and the writings of church fathers such as Tertullian and St. Ambrose who often castigated these hybrid Christians. Boin is not denying that these church leaders criticized Christians who participated in Roman society and institutions, and by extension, the institutions themselves. However, it is easy to overestimate the average Christian’s antagonism towards Rome and Roman institutions by focusing too much on the writings of these particular church leaders; it is important remember that people with strong views tend to be the same people who express them the loudest.

“Many of these people—Christians—fought against it, as silently, steadfastly, and passionately as they knew how. They went to popular Roman festivals with their friends and neighbors. They served alongside other Romans in the army. They enjoyed the theater, cheered on their favorite horses, delighted in a day at the baths, even signed up for membership in their local Roman social club. Cyprian and others may have marveled at their peculiar ability to do two things at once . . . but after his death, the clock kept ticking, the world kept turning, and many of Jesus’s followers kept on living their hyphenated lives (147).”

While church leaders like Tertullian represented a virulent form of Christian intolerance for Roman customs, there were also many ordinary Christians who participated in Roman institutions and customs, while maintaining their beliefs in the central ideas of Christianity. They didn’t see the two as mutually exclusive. For example, from these same critics, we know of two Christians named Martial and Basilides in 3rd century Spain who participated in Roman civil and religious festivals. Martial was “able to embrace Roman culture without any qualms about sacrificing the essentials of his faith (30).”

 

Boin offers an interesting reinterpretation of some of the literature in the New Testament. Instead of seeing New Testament teachings about slavery and women as something peculiar to Christianity, Boin argues that these ideas found in Christian scripture about slavery, the role of women, the importance of honoring the Emperor actually represent Christian attempts to align themselves with existing Roman social values. In other words, these were Christianity’s way of saying, “hey, we aren’t so different from you guys” in order to gain acceptance by the general populace.

 

In relation to Paul’s letters, Boin addresses the lack of early archaeological evidence for Christian communities. Letters from Paul suggest communities of Christians existed at a very early date across various parts of the empire, but no archaeological evidence exists for many of these communities. Some scholars have argued that the reason for this is that the early Christian communities drew from the lower classes and were too poor to leave behind material culture, but Boin argues that the real reason we lack any unique early Christian material culture is that the Christians of this time blended into society and thus since they looked no different than any other Roman or inhabitant of these areas they didn’t leave distinct material culture. Many Christians may have been hesitant to come out to their neighbors and communities as Christians. Christians experienced persecutions under the reigns of Nero and Diocletian. Evidence such as 3rd century graffiti found during excavations of the Palatine Hill in Rome of a crucified donkey along with a man worshipping him named Alexamenos suggests more traditional Romans often mocked their neighbors for their Christian beliefs.

At times, various religious traditions struggled to find mainstream acceptability among the Romans. Like Christianity, other foreign religions such as the Cult of Isis and Judaism struggled to find their place in the Roman Empire as well. Since Hellenistic times, Jews struggled with their identity and what it meant to be Jewish with texts like Maccabees criticizing Hellenistic Jews. It is clear, though, that Jews also had members that lived hybrid lives. These Hellenistic Jews adopted Greek art, attended Greek plays, discussed and were influenced by Greek philosophy, and attended Greek gyms. Many Jews served in the army of the Ptolemy. The synagogue at Dura Europos contained paintings of Biblical scenes of Moses, the Red Sea swallowing Pharaoh’s army, the Ark of the Covenant all depicted in a Graeco-Roman style of painting. In Benghazi, Jews used a public amphitheater in the Graeco-Roman style as an assembly place for worship and in this space offered public dedications to members of the local government to show their appreciation. The Jews of Sardis even had a bronze monument in Rome itself to honor them. All of this suggests that many Jews did embrace Hellenistic and Graeco-Roman culture, while maintaining their own unique cultural traditions and religious practices. Christianity was in a very similar situation.

 

The very real potential for harassment, mockery, and persecution explains the hesitation among early Christians to come out as members of their religious community. It was only in 313 AD that Christians were granted the right to openly worship in the Roman Empire. At that time around 90% of the Empire was probably non-Christian. It is easy to claim every Christian Emperor stifled all forms of polytheism once they had power, and at times, under pressure from influential bishops they did advance laws to suppress polytheistic worship, but this isn’t so straight forward either. There is the issue that legal suppression may at times have had limited effect depending on the area of the Roman Empire much like occasional suppression by Romans had not quashed Christianity. Even Christian emperors sometimes supported polytheistic institutions and other religions. According to a dedication of a Temple for the Goddess Isis in Ostia, it was a Christian emperor who paid for the temple’s restoration and offered support for the community. The Christian Emperor Eugenius attempted to restore the state subsidies to the Vestal Virgins, which a different Christian Emperor Gratian (367 – 383 AD) had ended, although he received a harsh rebuke from St. Ambrose for doing so.

 

So then what happened? Boin argues that later conflicts between Christians and non-Christians has its origins in “the splintered and splintering Christianity communit[ies]” whose three hundred years of unresolved identity issues (127) spilled over into attacks on polytheism. This conflict was a war of ideas within Christianity about what it meant to be a Christian in which certain hardline Christians attacked other Christians who they accused of acting too Roman or too Jewish. These hyphenated Christians that are the focus of his book “had learned to see the Roman world in shades of gray, not in black-and-white.” At the same, certain church leaders such as Tertullian and St. Ambrose could only see the world as a divided place with no “ethical or moral in-between (147).”

 

Overall, Boin does a good job providing the context for Christian experience trying to fit into the sometimes unaccepting Roman world. Given the thinness of his evidence and the way he needs to draw it out from writers who are critical of the very people he is attempting to discuss, he does a reasonably good job at recreating the lives of these potential Christians. However, as I just hinted, one key problem is that the evidence is pretty thin at times. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t have more to work with to solidify his points such as actual letters from these hybrid Christians themselves. His argument rests on him drawing inferences from the writing of the Church Fathers who mention these types of Christian to criticize or correct them, larger context about other religions who experienced similar issues and the larger Roman religious culture in general, and some archaeological evidence of churches or Christian religious spaces that show their willingness to borrow from Graeco-Roman culture and participate in the broader culture in a civil way.

Table Talk: Essays on Men and Manners by William Hazlitt

William Hazlitt was a professional literary critic, essayist, philosopher, and amateur painter who wrote in the early 19th century and the heyday of the Romantic poets. He scraped together a living as an art and theater critic for the newspapers of his day, but his writing transcended the typical ephemeral works of a journalist; his essays demonstrate a range of topics and quality of writing and thought that put him almost on the same level as great essayists like Montaigne.

Given his vocation and various occupations, it is no surprise that he has some ideas about art. In his first essay, “On the Pleasure of Painting,” Hazlitt compares the pleasure of painting with the act of writing. Although both can be called art, they have different goals. The goal of writing is to grapple with the world; it is not merely an act of revealing what you see in nature, but rather it possesses the ability to challenge the way the world is and call our attention to problems in it, it can try to convince us about some truth concerning our experiences in the world, and it can criticize and support ideas. For this reason, the act of writing is best conceived as a struggle with the world and a struggle with conveying the ideas in our own minds so that other people can understand them. Painting, on the other hand, is an act of imitation; the goal of a painter is to imitate what the artist sees and express how they experience nature. Having experience with both, Hazlitt deems painting the more pleasurable activity. He tells us that when he paints:

“The hours pass away untold, without chagrin, and without weariness; nor would you ever wish to pass them otherwise. Innocence is joined with industry, pleasure with business; and the mind is satisfied, though it is not engaged in thinking or in doing any mischief.”

The act of writing lacks such pleasure. We might enjoy thinking about ideas of which we might wish to write, but the actual act of putting thoughts into words and conveying our impressions and ideas is often a frustrating and difficult process. The failure to select the correct word or phrase can actually weaken the idea for a reader rather than effectively convey what we are trying to communicate. We become hyper-critical of ourselves when we write, whereas in painting we lose ourselves in the activity.

For those interested in art that wish to reach their full potential he recommends getting yourself to an art gallery and studying the Old Masters in person. When a young artist encounters the Old Masters it leaves an indelible stamp on the artist’s mind.

“It is stamped on his brain, and lives there thenceforward, a tally for nature, and a test of art. He furnishes out the chambers of the mind from the spoils of time, picks and chooses which shall have the best places—nearest his heart. He goes away richer than he came, richer than the possessor; and thinks that he may one day return, when he perhaps shall have done something like them, or even from failure shall have learned to admire truth and genius more.”

To view the greatest artists, the greatest poets, the greatest novelists, etc. teaches aspiring artists more than any set of abstract rules. It gives them an ideal to reach for, a standard from which to judge their own work and from which to learn. It is a spiritual experience that changes an artist’s perception of what is possible. Hazlitt describes his own experience of seeing the Old Masters for the first time as a life changing experience.

“I was staggered when I saw the works there collected, and looked at them with wondering and with longing eyes. A mist passed away from my sight: the scales fell off. A new sense came upon me, a new heaven and a new earth stood before me. I saw.”

In “On Genius and Common Sense,” Hazlitt suggests art and taste cannot he reduced to rules or be analyzed by rationality alone, but is a matter of feeling and impressions we develop from an accumulation of experience. Whatever rules we may develop about art come from our many varied experiences. In other words, we shouldn’t say a painting is good because it follows some abstract rule about some supposed characteristic a critic or philosopher claims good art must possess, but rather as we have many experiences with different artistic works that we personally judge to be good and bad based on our own feelings and natural reactions, we can formulate some general rules and principles about good qualities in art. True art is not just about following and mastering rules; it’s about capturing the feeling behind nature. This is why you can’t really study art in the traditional sense like you can a skill such as juggling, but to do art well you must in some ways feel deeply about the object you’re trying to represent and sympathize with it.

Artistic genius rests in an artist’s ability to draw out new and striking qualities found in nature. The best artist relies on impressions and instinct rather than following technical rules. Art is a product of the greatest egoism; the work of art is about the artist’s unique perspective, their particular way of viewing a subject or an object of nature. Great geniuses such as Milton, Wordsworth, and Rembrandt create their art through the lens of themselves, their own vision, and what interests them. True genius is peculiar in that it excels at one particular area or skill or subject, while requiring the genius to neglect others. It is hard to be both a fantastic poet and master painter, a celebrated musician and groundbreaking mathematician, etc.

He also argues that genius and capacity are not the same thing. Capacity refers to the knowledge we acquire of a subject or topic, while genius refers to the quality and method of acquisition. Genius allows us to make new discoveries and formulate new ideas, while capacity might be said to refer to our ability to master what has already been done or known, even to an extremely impressive and high level. Genius allows us to achieve originality in that it allows us to see the world in a new light, while still portraying it as it is. We should judge a work of art by the originality it displays (and thus the genius of the artist).

“The value of any work is to be judged of by the quantity of originality contained in it. A very little of this will go a great way. If Goldsmith had never written anything but the two or three first chapters of the Vicar of Wakefield or the character of a Village Schoolmaster, they would have stamped him a man of genius. The editors of Encyclopedias are not usually reckoned the first literary characters of the age. The works of which they have the management contain a great deal of knowledge, like chests or warehouses, but the goods are not their own. We should as soon think of admiring the shelves of a library; but the shelves of a library are useful and respectable.”

In “On the Ignorance of the Learned,” Hazlitt finds that people who are learned, especially in the sense of those who have learned to read and speak dead languages such as Greek and Latin, often possess very little knowledge, lack true understanding, and lack creativity. They are not critical thinkers or even creative thinkers; they are not insightful or clever. They are good at memorizing information, but have no original ideas other than what they can glean from books. In a sense, they only understand a shadowy version of the ideas they study in books; they can repeat the ideas of others, but they don’t really understand it themselves on a deep level. Real knowledge is different from learning in that you can apply it to new situations, solve new problems, and offer new perspectives. For this reason, Hazlitt suggests it is always better to read the work of real genius directly than a commentary by some pedant. It is better to read Shakespeare himself in order to learn from his wisdom and insight than to read the various critics who have written about him.

In “The Indian Jugglers,” he compares physical skills to abstract skills like reasoning and artistic endeavors. Excellence in physical skills like juggling may be superior to intellectual excellence in part because it is difficult to discern what real intellectual excellence looks like; often well-seasoned good reasoners still struggle to win a debate against an opponent. In a discussion, bad reasoning can seem like good reasoning. You aren’t going to make that mistake watching someone juggle an object; they can either juggle the balls or they can’t. Moving back to the realm of art, even though a particular acrobat or juggler may be more proficient at their skill than a particular painter is at his, since it’s the artist’s goal to capture Nature, their role is the more respectable activity because even if they fail to do it perfectly they have the more difficult task and it’s more impressive when they do accomplish an achievement at a high level.

His essay “On Criticism” offers arguments for what makes good and bad literary criticism. The purpose of criticism changes with time and place. Often it takes the form of a critic declaring if an author is good or bad based on a few select lines to serve as evidence along with an analysis of all the different possible meanings of those particular lines as a way of further supporting the quality or lack thereof in a work. Hazlitt believes this sort of literary criticism is often more about the critic showing off his knowledge and skill of analysis than actually about admiration of the work itself. Good criticism reflects the soul of the work by finding what unique perspective, insight, or feelings an author brings to his subject whereas bad criticism focuses too much on whether the structure, plot, or moral meets pre-established formal rules and standards. In a way, these perspectives are opposites of each other; one searches for what is original about the work, the other looks to see how much a particular work follows the rules established by predecessors and tradition.

Some critics can look at a painting and notice all its formal aspects, but cannot see its substance; for this reason, they fail to truly see what makes it beautiful since they are judging paintings by received rules of composition. These sorts of bad critics also tend to believe that some forms are superior than others so that in their minds an epic poem regardless of quality is always superior to a limerick poem because the epic form of poetry is superior to limerick as a type of poetry, a symphony must be superior to a mere song, a landscape painting superior to a portrait. Taken to this extreme, the worst epic poem ever written would be superior to the best limerick poem ever written. Hazlitt agrees that subject does matter and a well-executed work of a high subject is generally superior and better to a well-executed work of a low subject, but a well-executed work of a traditionally low subject is also superior to a poorly done work of a high subject.

Another type of flaw in criticism overemphasizes all the good qualities of a work or all the bad qualities of a work as if it had no redeeming qualities. This is especially true of political criticism. He does recognize that sometimes critical disagreement comes down to differences in tastes, including national tastes. With this in mind, he warns that we should always be wary of criticizing an artist that is admired throughout a different country than our own because most likely the fault lies with us in that we cannot see what makes him or her interesting due to different preferences formed by different cultures. Similarly this can be true about tastes in writers in our own country. One poet may excel in correctness and simplicity; whereas other poets might excel at strength and sublimity. It is ridiculous for a critic to demand a writer adopt the exact same qualities as each other since each writer brings something interesting and unique to the table in their works, while perhaps not bringing other qualities that we might appreciate in other poets. There is another type of critic who enjoys finding secret beauties and meanings in work not apparent to others, while denigrating beautiful works whose meanings and beautiful qualities are obvious. This is the critic who only likes difficult dense works that the average person would struggle to understand. They will dislike or criticize a work simply for being popular or overly simple in style or obvious in meaning. Again, sometimes simplicity can be beautiful and sometimes density and difficulty can be interesting as well.

Beyond art criticism, Hazlitt also deals with other philosophical topics. For example, “On the Past and the Future,” Hazlitt argues that the past is as important as the future and finds it strange that we tend to perseverate on the future, while devaluing our past. After all, the future we imagine or fear may never even happen, while the past has already happened and has left its mark upon us. He argues that we focus so much on the future because we imagine we can the control its outcome with enough effort and foresight, whereas the past is already completed and therefore can’t be changed. With this in mind, we don’t take pleasure in the past because we fear it will slow down our progress of achieving our goals for the future. However, the consolation provided by the better parts of our past can support us during difficult times in the present and help us face an uncertain future.

He also challenges the argument of ancient philosophers that one should never call themselves happy or fortunate until they’re dead because fortune can change at any time. According to these philosophers, the capriciousness of fortune means that a happy blessed life can end as one of the most tragic and awful ones. Hazlitt argues against this point by noting that this argument unfairly focuses on a single bad period in life as way of judging the entire life instead of judging a person’s entire life as a whole or by the majority of its experiences.

“A man’s life is his whole life, not the last glimmering snuff of the candle; and this, I say, is considerable, and not a little matter, whether we regard its pleasures or its pains.”

On this matter, he also writes:

“The length or agreeableness of a journey does not depend on the few last steps of it, nor is the size of a building to be judged of from the last stone that is added to it. It is neither the first nor last hour of our existence, but the space that parts these two—not our exit nor our entrance upon the stage, but what we do, feel, and think while there—that we are to attend to in pronouncing sentence upon it.”

Why should we judge a life a failure or miserable because it contains a bad ending? Why is a life deemed misfortunate if it ends the last ten years in poverty and misery, but the first fifty were full of fortune and bliss? He believes that we need to consider the life as a whole, not on the basis of a single moment or period: past, present, or future.

In the essay “On people with One Idea,” Hazlitt mocks individuals who obsess over one idea that dominates their entire life whether it is about politics, religion, farming, business, poetry, art, or whatever. These people will trot out their idea and shoehorn it into any conversation regardless of the original topic, which is incredibly annoying for the rest of us. Hazlitt believe that the reason some people do this is that the obsessive person lacks ideas about other topics so they cover up their lack of knowledge and generally bland personality with a focus on this one topic that they think they know a lot about, although they might not in reality. Essentially what these people are doing is talking about themselves and how their conception of the idea shows their own superior intellect, even though in reality it’s all a cover for their lack of confidence and ability in other areas.

In “On Living to One’s-Self,” Hazlitt argues it is better to live an obscure life of contemplation away from worldly things in order to be able to contemplate nature, art, and philosophy than to try and make a name for yourself and be noticed by society; this only causes worry and egotistic vanities that interfere with your peace of mind. Many actors, politicians, poets and orators have learned this the hard way.

In “On Thought and Action” he notes that people who enjoy abstract thought are generally not men of action, while men of action are usually not good at abstract thought. In fact, a person of action like a farmer is likely to ruin his affairs by spending too much time reading abstract theories on the best way to farm instead of learning from trial and error and direct experience. However, both types of life styles have their merits. We shouldn’t judge a life of contemplation for being inactive and lacking practicality, just as we shouldn’t judge an active life by how much it is guided by deeper thoughts or principles.

He also mocks the way people try to control others through their wills in “On Will-Making.” The making of wills brings out the most ridiculous aspects of human behavior. The contemplation of death usually doesn’t make us change in positive ways, but often brings out our worst prejudices or eccentric whims. We use our wills to control people or horde money and property for some imaginary future for our descendants, while depriving ourselves of pleasures now.

In “On Paradox and Common-place,” he suggests that originality is not the same thing as singularity. A wise person looks to nature for truth and it doesn’t matter whether it has been said before or not. Some people refuse to challenge traditions, customs and authority, while another type of person seems to only find pleasure in novelty and paradoxes and new ideas. He names the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley as an example in this vein whose writing seems to like to dangle new metaphysical ideas and enjoy the reactions of the public. The problem with this sort of thing is that it never advances knowledge or truth either, but its goal is only to challenge the old or established. He also critiques politicians who advocate turning to some idealized past for our happiness. Hazlitt argues people don’t change for hypothetical better futures or because of some idealized past, but rather people enact revolutions and demand changes because of the concerns and problems of the present moment and abuses that have built up over time from the past.

“On Vulgarity and Affectation” Hazlitt argues that people who are vulgar obsess over the idea of being refined and elegant, while people often considered gentile and elegant tend to obsess over the vulgar as a way of criticizing things they don’t like and think should be avoided. The problem is often people use this as an unthinking slander against certain places and types of people, etc. instead of on a case by case basis. These people think they are elegant and refined, but actually are just thoughtless and are obsessed with appearances rather than truth and actual excellences; they call others vulgar as a way of propping up themselves. Likewise, even boisterous actions from a drunken mob might seem vulgar, but at least they have the advantage of reflecting real feelings and sentiments instead of the false appearances and expectations of others represented in the abstract concept of gentility. It is a false belief that titles or high social class confers excellence upon them. Excellence of character transcends title, social class, and rules of proper decorum and gentility; they’re not a matter of social rules, but real qualities and virtues within us as individuals.
“On Coffee-House Politicians” refers to gentleman who spend large portions of their time in coffeehouses sitting and reading newspapers in order to gossip about the day’s news. Hazlitt censures these men as not really being interested in the news or the issues themselves, but obsessing over them in order to have something seemingly important to talk about with others. In the same essay, he discusses what qualities make for good society; good society involves people who are honest, genuine, and witty. He argues that city society is preferable to country society because your real qualities matter in the city whereas in the country people tend to care more if your rich or have a title or have political connections.

In “On Great and Little Things,” Hazlitt notices that people are often bothered by very little issues and inconveniences than bigger problems. We often get more annoyed when we come close to winning a game then when we lose by a large amount. It is often the case that we lose control of our emotions over minor issues, but we bear and accept our fates during a major tragedy. Hazlitt believes the thing that truly angers us is not the importance of the object, but the time and energy we put into it.

In “On the Knowledge of Character,” Hazlitt acknowledges that it is difficult to get to know a person’s character, even people we have known for years. The best tools we have to ascertain character is “by looks, words, actions.” First impressions of people often prove the most accurate. Looks may be the easiest way to come to know a person because we often cannot control our emotions. Our real feelings often appear on our face whereas we can attempt to hide our real thoughts and character through our words and actions. In other words, people can say one thing and do another. Speech can be used to conceal our thoughts as much as reveal them. Sometimes we may come to think we are judging another person well, but in reality remain ignorant of their true character; the usual reason for this is that we are either too close or too distant to the person to see them in their true nature. Often this is the reason that lower class people and upper class people struggle to understand each other’s minds and characters. Even education can divide people beyond economic differences. Education in abstract ideas such as philosophy and art, train one to value truth over self-interest and everyday petty concerns, but people who lack this sort of training and education worry only about how they can turn anything that comes their way to their advantage, how they can use things to help them in their everyday concerns. Not only do people of different classes fail to understand each other, but so do men and women. Hazlitt advocates that it is best for men to know their own characters by being aware of their worst faults and to excel in their best skills by focusing only on one or two of their best qualities.


In “On the Fear of Death,” Hazlitt argues that the best cure for the fear of death is to remember that “life has a beginning as well as an end.” We should consider that once we didn’t exist and this idea doesn’t bother us. Part of the reason we fear death isn’t because we care about the future, which is an abstract idea, but rather we desire to perpetuate the present into perpetuity. Young people have trouble imagining they will in fact die some day; they may accept the abstract idea as being true, but they struggle to picture it in reality. We never suspect when death will actually arrive; even though it could happen tomorrow, we have a natural propensity to assume there’s still more time and it’s still far off. When we think about death and worry about it, we approach it from the perspective of how we feel as a living person, not how the dead feel. Since the dead can’t think, the dead don’t worry about the fact that their dead. Hazlitt believes that modern society (in this case, the 19
th century) makes people more effeminate towards death; the ancient fought violent wars and other acts of violence and passion without suffering deep existential angst that such actions could lead to their death. It’s not clear this is really true. Nevertheless, for this reason, Hazlitt believes men of action tend to deal with the inevitability of death better than intellectuals because they understand how precarious life can be from direct and constant experience. In self-reflection, Hazlitt considers regrets over his unhappy marriage and wonders if it was good to spend so much time living a life dedicated to abstract thoughts, books, and philosophical ideas rather than spending more time enjoying the everyday pleasures of the world, which interestingly contradicts some of his points he makes in other essays.

 

How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom

“Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share one nature that writes and reads (34).”

Why do we read? What is great literature? And why read specifically great literature? Some would argue these are the questions that plague those who take literature seriously, the clandestine nightmares of the English Major who has doubts about the value of his scholarship and field of study, and the fundamental issues that spawn a mélange of half-baked theories and endless abstruse answers. In this appropriately titled book, literary critic Harold Bloom adds his voice into the discord in order to address why we should read and how.

 

Against the more recent trends of Postmodernist philosophy and politically-oriented scholarship, Bloom challenges the efficacy of literature as social program. Most readers don’t pick up a book to correct social wrongs of the past or present. Similarly, a book is not an essay, although granted some essays such as those of Montaigne can be great literature; it is more than just a contrived and artificial way to deliver an important social, political, or philosophical message. In other words, a big mistake of many literary theorists, teachers, and readers is to assume the point of reading literature is to get the message, along with the idea that the message can somehow improve society and correct social ills. Bloom sees the goal of reading as a slightly more selfish act in that it is meant to “to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests (25).”

 

In this view, the reading of literature is an important tool in forming ourselves, our identities, but more broadly it is there to help us discover ourselves. Although superficially similar to identity politics, this is a more radical statement than mere expressions of race, gender, class, and sexuality. Just as our first kiss, our first experience with the death of a loved one, and the birth of our first child are life-altering events that reveal a new side to ourselves hidden until that moment of experience and even change us to take on new roles in the world, so too is the reading of the great works of literature. We cannot improve the lives of others or society by reading great books in themselves, but we can improve ourselves and broaden our horizons, which then in an indirect way may allow us to help others. The great books allow us to experience lives, people, time periods, and worlds different than our own, as well as reflect on lives similar to ours, which further allows us to know more people who we may never have expeerienced directly and ourselves better by helping us take stock of what really matters in life. Fiction and literary language helps us escape our everyday worlds for a moment so that we can reflect upon it through another person’s eyes, experiences, and ideas. Stories get around the presentation of mere facts. Instead of a message delivery systems, stories, poems, essays, and plays are experience delivery systems! The style and presentation cannot be separated from whatever messages a book may contain.

 

Likewise, Bloom reminds us not to lose sight of literature as a type of pleasure or entertainment. Literary reading is a higher and more difficult type of pleasure than watching a funny Youtube video, but it still is supposed to be a form of enjoyment. It is precisely the mental effort required on my part to achieve the most enjoyment from its form that assists in its ability to cause deep change and cause self-reflection. Literature forces us to consider and weigh how the world is, our own relationship to it, and see it through the eyes of other people (whether the broader vision of the author or the individual characters), while there is a distinct pleasure in trying to understand and unravel some of its more difficult styles (sort of like putting the pieces together of a complicated puzzle).

 

According to Bloom, the best literature is idiosyncratic; it is unique, and each work is unlike any other work, yet simultaneously the best authors work within conventions and expectations of established literary modes, themes, and periods. For this reason, Bloom argues that there are no absolute aesthetic standards. It is impossible to declare what shared qualities all good books should have, except in a very general way such as their idiosyncrasy, since what makes a particular author great in terms of style and content is their ability to stretch conventions or break them in unique ways different from all other authors. The reason we should be selective with our reading is that we have a limited amount of time on this planet since we all inevitably will die, and so when we choose to read something it should be with the best and most fruitful books.

 

Along with these views about what makes certain works great literature and why we should spend our time reading such works, Bloom also offers his views on what makes a good reader. Here are some his principles of reading that he has picked up along the way:

  • “Clear your mind of cant.”

This idea derives from Samuel Johnson and suggests that we should let the work teach us how to read it. Good readers stop themselves from imposing their own desires or ideologies onto the work. Let the work reveal its artistic vision. No checklist criticism!

 

  • “Do not attempt to improve your neighbor or neighborhood by what or how you read.”

 

Literature can improve you by expanding your horizons, your imagination of what’s possible, it can teach you what people valued in the past, and offer insights into what makes your neighbor tick, while transporting you to different times and places, but Bloom warns that it won’t change the world for the better in terms of offering some kind of social program. At best, it can only assist indirectly by helping you learn what it means to be human and help you come to know yourself as an individual.

 

  • “A scholar is a candle which the love and desire of all men will light.”

 

This idea he borrows from Ralph Waldo Emerson. It suggests that authentic readers improve others and society at large by improving themselves through their books and studies. The reading of great books and the serious study of them is a reward in itself and generally improves the population by making them more educated and broad-minded.

 

  • “One must be an inventor to read well.”

 

Also an idea inspired by Emerson. This seems like it would contradict the first piece of advice to avoid imposing our wills on the text. However, this is about balance. The best literary critics and readers allow the text to dictate the themes and issues, but are still inventive enough to come to new and personal understandings and insights of works of literature.

Bloom demonstrates these principles by taking us through some of his favorite short stories, poems, dramas, and novels. In the realm of short stories he compares two modes typified by Chekhov and Borges respectively.

“We want them for different needs; if the first gratifies our hunger for reality, the second teaches us how ravenous we still are for what is beyond supposed reality. Clearly, we read the two schools differently, questing for truth with Chekhov, or for the turning-inside-out of truth with the Kafkan-Borgesians (86).”

 

On poetry he writes:

“Poetry, at the best, does is a kind of violence that prose fiction rarely attempts or accomplishes. The Romantics understood this as the proper work of poetry: to startle us out of our sleep-of-death into a more capacious sense of life. There is no better motive for reading and rereading the best of our poetry (142).”

Poetry awakens us from our quotidian routine; it pulls us out of the everyday, to help us see broader possibilities for our own lives and our relationship to the world.

This is what he has to same about novels:

“Major novels do, however, tend to address crucial enigmas, or brood upon central questions. One mark of good reading is to allow such enigmas or concerns to reveal and uncover themselves, rather than hunt them out too strenuously (196).”

A good reader knows that he should pay attention, but more importantly when to listen.

The Completed Stories by Franz Kafka (trans. various)

Franz Kafka’s tales are a strange assortment of bizarre fantasies full of psychological explorations of obsessions and invisible power struggles. Stories such as “A Report to an Academy,” “Investigations of A Dog,” “The Burrow,” “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” and even “The Metamorphosis” feature animals as the main characters, often imbued with a sense of human rationality, as a way of  critiquing various aspects of the human experience. For example, in “The Burrow” we read about a mole-like animal who obsesses over ways he can improve the defense of his burrow, all while fearing an imminent attack by a rival or a predator. His obsession over this potential problem prevents him from actually enjoying his time in the burrow, but Kafka implies it is the creature’s love of the burrow that causes him to obsess so much over its defenses. In other words, we want to protect and keep the things we love most, but our obsession over protecting that which we care about often prevents us from truly enjoying it completely. Yet, by the end of the story, a possible intruder is slowly moving towards the burrow; although perhaps this is all in the creature’s mind, his obsession transformed into an auditory illusion.

Characters succumbing to their obsessions might be described as a key idea that Kafka explores in much of his fiction. In what I would rank as Kafka’s second best short story, “In the Penal Colony,” we find an officer justifying the use of an elaborate torture machine to a famed explorer visiting a foreign penal colony. The officer believes that if he can convince the explorer of the efficacy and sacredness of this machine and its form of punishment, then he can defend the practice to the new commandant of the penal colony who has shown a dislike for the practice and is slowly dismantling it. The officer struggles to accept change and longs for the old commandant and the penal colony who occupied a kind of cultish religious position. As we learn at the end of the tale, there are stories that the old commandant would arise from the dead at some future date. Similarly, in “A Hunger Artist” which features a character who starves himself as a type of performance art, the reader encounters another character who struggles to adopt when society’s tastes change and they no longer care about his artistic efforts to starve himself. In both of these stories each character’s obsession, one with the torture machine and the other with the art of starving himself, serve almost as a kind of religious ecstasy they desire to achieve. The officer sees the torture machine as offering a sacred epiphany, while the hunger artist thinks that by starving himself beyond the permissible days of a performance, he will achieve a euphoric level of artistry. However, only they can see the secret glory in these activities, the outside world naturally views this as strange, cruel, and bizarre, suggesting our own petty obsessions that seem important to us might be at minimum meaningless to another and downright bizarre and dangerous at its most extreme. This focus on obsession and petty arguments continue in “The Village Schoolmaster” in which a schoolmaster and another younger researcher become intellectual rivals over their research and pamphlets about a local village mole. Nobody in the outside world, of course, cares about their frivolous debate, but to them it seems like one of the most important scientific questions in the world.

The most famous story of his shorter works is The Metamorphosis. One morning Gregor Samsa, the primary breadwinner for his family, awakens to find himself transformed into a gigantic bug. He is late for work and his family knock on his locked door anxious over his tardiness. His manager arrives to check on the reason for his delay. This draws the transformed Gregor out of his room to plead with his boss. When the manager sees him in this transformed state he tries his best to escape as quickly as possible, his family freaks out, and his father forces him back into his room by smacking him with a newspaper. The family shifts between anxiety and terror over their son’s new transformation, while Gregor starts adjusting to his new state, changing his dietary habits and beginning to crawl upon the walls. The family talk in private about how to deal with the situation, mentally, emotionally, and monetarily. To make up for Gregor’s lost revenue they all have to get jobs. Gregor continues failed attempts to communicate with his family members. For a short period they seem to grudgingly come to terms with his new existence, opening the door of his room in the evenings so he can listen in on the family during social hours after work. Then they invite some boarders to come live with them in hopes of earning a little extra cash and cheapen their living expenses. One night when Gregor’s sister plays the violin for the new boarders, the music attracts Gregor the vermin into the living room, which scares off the boarders. The family grows frustrated. His sister claims the monster isn’t really Gregor because if it was, then he would’ve left a long time ago for the sake of his family, and not hung around to be a burden upon them. Gregor in his despair over his family’s rejection crawls back into his room, weak from not having eaten much, and dies overnight. The family finds him dead the next morning. All of them call out of work because they desperately need a vacation from the stress they have experienced over the past few months and spend the day together.

Kafka’s work is more about symbols and textures than about plot. In his novel, The Trial, much of the novel is spent on Josef K.’s psychological reactions to an ongoing investigation for an unknown crime. Josef K struggles to make sense of the court system, and by extension the society that fosters such a system, while accepting and rejecting the help of others who might help him navigate such a convoluted and frustrating system, even as they themselves are a intricate part of the court’s labyrinthine nature. Josef K. fights to maintain a semblance of his normal life, while the investigation intrudes into that life, and his psychological reaction to his upcoming trial intensifies.

Likewise, Gregor Samsa tries to negotiate his everyday reality with this sudden transformation in his life. Instead of a trial changing his everyday life and demonstrating the precariousness of his relationships like in the aforementioned novel, the normal everyday course of Gregor Samsa’s life is interrupted by a transformation into a giant insect. So at heart of Kafka’s two stories are protagonists trying to make sense of their everyday lives and deal with the psychological repercussions of major devastating changes in those lives. More importantly, both novels share protagonists that discover that their seemingly high status in their jobs and families mean nothing once these tragedies; they have their realities turned upside down and in doing so learn that they never understood the nature of the lives and social existence to begin with. The two protagonists of Kafka’s stories soon learn how small and unimportant they truly are, how fortune and status can disappear in a blink of an eye. Even how our relationships with other people, even our relationships with our family, depend on the status quo. People are willing to extend their friendship and love when times are good, but willing to jump ship so to speak when time grow rocky and tragedy inconveniences them.

Kafka opens his narrative with Gregor awaking transformed after having some “unsettling dreams.” Many critics have tried to find Freudian connotations in the “unsettling dreams,” but the “unsettling dreams” seem to be more of an image there for contrast. The real world and the family’s reaction to his transformation is far more unsettling than anything that happens in a dreamscape. There is nothing so unsettling as the real world. Kafka’s story reveals how life itself seems like one long unsettling dream in which Gregory finds not a supportive loving family, but one that is terrified and antagonistic towards him. After being transformed Gregor Samsa loses his ability to communicate with his family. Kafka reminds us how much we take it for granted in everyday lives our ability to communicate with other people. Gregor Samsa doesn’t only lose the ability to communicate with other human beings, but he also loses control of his own body. He struggles to adapt to his new body. His insect body continually exudes strange fluids when he scrapes against furniture and Gregor struggles to negotiate his physical surroundings without arms or legs.

The books never offers a reason for his transformation. The transformation itself functions as a symbol for the alienating nature of modern social existence, an existence that even manages to alienate us from our own bodies. Without the ability to communicate to directly link him to other human beings socially, Gregor starts to adopt the habits of an insect, crawling across walls and eating rotten food. Kafka understands that it is only through social relations that we act the way we do, through the process of enculturation. Without language and the ability to communicate Gregor is cutoff from his family and culture, and by extension, his humanity. But is Gregor’s humanity lost forever? The ending denouement, if such a story has one, suggests otherwise in which he leaves his bedroom, unable to resist the attraction of his sister’s musical performance on the violin. His reaction to the music is strikingly human.

“Was he an animal, that music could move him so? He felt as if the way to the unknown nourishment he longed for were coming to light.”

It is not clear in the text why he stops eating physical food, but I believe he is trying to kill himself. He has no reason to live since his family has abandoned him and he has been cast out of all social relationships. From his observations earlier in the novel, which mostly focuses on his family’s reaction to his changed state, his desire to communicate with them, reminiscences about them and his willingness to sacrifice his own happiness for theirs, I think we can conclude that he loves his family very deeply. The music his sister is playing feeds his undernourished soul. The music reestablishes for a moment his connection with other human beings. Multiple times in the narrative Gregor Samsa tells us that he planned to send his sister to a music conservatory as a Christmas present. The music connects him to that memory and to his life as a human being, it reconnects him to the love he has for his sister–the most human emotion of all. Additionally, music itself, and by extension art and literature, has the ability to connect and reconnect us with people. One almost wonders if his family had treated him differently, had demonstrated the love and compassion a family should have during such a crisis, if those feelings of love and human connection would’ve eventually restored him into a human being. Unfortunately that isn’t what happens and the music leads him out into the open, which brings on the final rejection of Gregor the vermin, denounced by his own sister, the very person who almost restores his connection with humanity through her music.

“You just have to try to get rid of the idea that it’s Gregor. Believing it for so long, that is our real misfortune. But how can it be Gregor? If it were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that it isn’t possible for human beings to live with such a creature, and he would have gone away of his own free will. Then we wouldn’t have a brother, but we’d be able to go on living and honor his memory. But as things are, this animal persecutes us, drives the roomers away, obviously wants to occupy the whole apartment and for us to sleep in the gutter.”

Kafka continually shows how major events can not only completely transform our everyday lives, but also our social relationships. His stories are there to remind us of the precariousness of our relationships with other human beings, how modern society alienates us from each other, and prevents us from true communication. Before the transformation Gregor Samsa is the breadwinner of the family. No one else works. Gregor Samsa complains about his early morning commutes and doesn’t seem to like his job, but feels an obligation to continue at the job he dislikes because his father owes a debt. Meanwhile at the beginning his father wakes up late in the morning and lounges around reading the paper. But suddenly once Gregor is transformed and cannot work anymore, everyone is able to get a job to help make ends meet. This of course raises an interesting question: why didn’t the other family members do this prior to Gregory’s transformation and strengthen their economic stability?

Clearly the rest of the family are capable of working, but instead they preferred to sponge off their son and have him pay off their debts. The whole story is essentially a reversal of this situation. He can no longer work because of his condition and they must support him. Far from appreciating all the help they received from him before the transformation, they resent him for not being able to continue with these arrangements.  They resent that he causes them to miss opportunities that would help them get ahead in life, meanwhile before the transformation he sacrifices for the family and keeps his resentments to himself despite his unsatisfying job preventing him from starting a relationship with any women or leaving his job and picking up a career he would find more satisfying.  He gladly sacrifices for them, but when the time comes for them to sacrifice for him they ultimately fail and voice their resentments out loud. This is a very cynical portrayal of the family unit, far more unsettling than the conceit of a person turning into a giant vermin. Kafka’s point seems to be you can’t trust family; they’ll let you down when the time comes for them to step up to the plate, but they’ll gladly mooch off you and drain you like a bunch of parasites and extend you their love as long as it is beneficial to their needs.