Friday, December 14, 2012

John Locke: Concerning Civil Government; 2nd Essay

I previously blogged about John Locke and I read part of his second essay Concerning Civil Government at the time.  However, as part of the GBWW second year program, I am returning to take a closer look at this significant treatise on the the purpose and regulation of government. In the The Second Essay Concerning Civil Government, John Locke outlines the basis for political governments. Locke's ideas on the separation of powers dramatically influenced our Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution (although Montesquieu was more important for the latter).

Locke says that all men are created equal (that sounds familiar) and that no man has a natural right to govern (not popular among monarchists).  When we were living in a "State of Nature" before governments, we were all at war with each other - however, we were completely free to do whatever we wanted.  We gave up some of that freedom in exchange for a different type of freedom - freedom which comes from being secure in our property and personal safety.

In this new structure, we adopted a "Common Law" which allows everyone to have his fair share.  When you take more than your fair share, you are living outside the common law.  In affect, you have now returned to a "state of war" with everyone - just like being in the state of nature from where we came.  This is similar to the state of nature described by Thomas Hobbes (sans monarchist overlord).   If you want to live under a government, you must accept all the rules and the rule of the majority.  If, as John Locke states, you receive your father's property you must submit to the laws that gave him AND you that property.  Otherwise, you cannot accept it. 

He is your President - unless you want to live in a "State of Nature"
Significantly, Locke states that although laws may seem to make sense at the time, they may not make sense in the future, the past, or for different people.

 "Things in this world are in so constant a flux that nothing remains long in the same state...To what gross absurdities the following of custom when reason has left it..."

We need to change as time change - so do our laws (and perhaps our constitutions). This is probably something we might need to think about in our OWN laws and even our Constitution. 

Locke also discusses on length about the right to rule, especially when a group is conquered by another.  In every case, Locke states that the people must give their consent to be ruled.  No one can chose to rule another against his will and no one should allow it.  We can observe this in even modern history, with defeat of the Axis in WW2 (who surrendered ) compared to the recent wars in Iraq and Afganstan where the opposition did not submit to a new government.

For us, in our society, we must remember that if the "majority" has chosen a leader or made a law, we are bound to accept the majority rule.  To do otherwise is to throw yourself back into the STATE of NATURE - and you have forfeited all rights and privileges in our society. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cervantes: Don Quixote

There is an older gentleman in the village of La Mancha, who enjoyed reading tales of chivalry. He became so enamored with these stories that he saw himself as a knight errant, a man who rights wrongs and stands for truth and justice. His name was Quixada (or maybe Quesada or Quixana), but he called himself Don Quixote of La Mancha. 

Requiring a lady to hold dear and dedicate his noble deeds toward, he chose a local country girl, Aldonza Lorenzo, and gave her the name Dulcinea del Toboso. Every knight also needs a squire, so he convinced a local villager Sancho Panza to be his companion.  Sancho is reluctant, but Don Quixote promises him an island that he can govern in return for his services, and this tangible reward is enough to convince Sacho to follow Don Quixote. The contrast between these characters is one of the defining characteristics of this novel.  We have the heroic idealist and visionary compared with the practical man who values worldly needs.  They both need each other and we can imagine a role for both of them in our society (or in ourselves).

Don Quixote is a fun, exciting and a little thought provoking.  Filled with allegories, satire, slapstick and wit, it is easy to see why it is still popular.  This is despite its length (over 1000 pages), the number of characters (over 400) and the fact that there are side stories, stories-within-stories and the number of characters playing multiple parts as they either help Don Quixote, try and dissuade him, or play along with his fantasies.

Don Quixote sees windmills as attacking giants, a barber's bowl as a sacred helmet and a herd of sheep as an army on the march.  How can Sancho or anyone else follow, believe or tolerate him?  There are at least two ways.  First, Don Quixote convinces some people, such as Sancho, that "enchanters" are trying to deceive them, "...there is always a swarm of enchanters in attendance upon us that change and alter everything with us, and turn things as they please, and according as they are disposed to aid or destroy us".  The second is that people want to accommodate Don Quixote because they believe he is either harmless, that they find him enjoyable or that they think his wild fantasies of nobility, truth and justice are a welcome respite from the insincerity of real world.

When Don Quixote isn't possessed by the spirit of chivalry he can appear quite wise.  He gives sage advice and once tells Sancho that life is a play, with people playing the parts of kings, pontiffs, ladies and villains.  When it is over everyone is equal in the grave, just like actors who strip off their costumes at the end of a play (sounds like Shakespeare). 

Sancho Panza doles out aphorisms, sayings, psalms and saws to grating regularity - and inappropriately - or at least Don Quixote thinks so.  Well, many are inappropriate, but they are quite entertaining.  It is probably Cervantes way of mocking people who spout such platitudes and call it wisdom.  

At the end of the book, Don Quixote dies in his bed, but shortly before he passes he renounces chivalry and comes to recognize his own delusions.  However, you get the feeling that everyone is sad seeing Don Quixote coming to his rational senses.  There was something magical and powerful about "Don Quixote" the knight errant.  The vision, the courage and the idealist.  He stands for justice and truth above all - and people love and respect that. All that is lost now - only the rational man is left.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote is one of the most famous and beloved characters in Western literature. An older man with a comfortable life, "Don Quixote" spends much of his time reading books on medieval chivalry. Eventually he imagines himself to be a knight errant in search of fame, honor and glory. Cobbling together some armor and mounting his tired horse, he sets off for (mis)adventure in this enjoyable and stimulating story. The tale of Don Quixote gave us phrases like "quixotic" (for something that is impractical or fantastic) and "tilting at windmills" (for attacking imaginary enemies).  Don Quixote is also called the first "modern novel" and is one of the most popular books of all time.

Battle of Lepanto
Miguel de Cervantes (1547 – 1616) is most well-known for writing Don Quixote, but he lived an exciting life long before he became a celebrated writer.  Born in the ancient university town of Alcala de Henares, in Spain, at a young age Cervantes joined the army to fight the Turks.  He fought in the decisive sea battle at Lepanto, which ended Ottoman naval supremacy in the Mediterranean.  At the Battle of Lepanto, Cervantes received three gunshot wounds, two in the chest and one which maimed his left hand for life. When his service in the army ended, Cervantes returned to Spain.  On the way there he was captured by Barbary corsairs, was taken prisoner, and kept as a slave in Algiers.  He tried to escape several times, but was only freed when his parents were able to pay his ransom. 

Back in Spain, Cervantes had constant money problems.  Unable to support himself and his family with his odd jobs, he eventually began to write to supplement his income. During his years of extreme poverty, Don Quixote first appeared.  It quickly became the most popular book in Spain and brought Cervantes international fame.  Surprisingly, Cervantes profited very little from his success and even in old age he remained quite poor.  He died on April 23, 1616, the same day as William Shakespeare.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Anna Karenina - How to find happiness

Anna Karenina is one of the most widely read and thoroughly studied books in the Western canon.   It is also a very long book, however, the story is nicely laid out in the first few chapters of the book:

Anna meets Vronsky; they fall in love.  However, Anna loves her son and doesn't want to lose him (which will happen if she divorces her husband).  Levin proposes to Kitty - he's initially rejected but then she later accepts him with open arms.  Stiva cheats on Dolly and she remains largely unhappy (or unfulfilled) the rest of the novel.

That is in the first 11 chapters - and there are another 237 chapters left.


To me one the most important things to discuss is the influence of society on our decisions and our happiness. In Russian society at the time, social structure, decorum, protocol and the perception of others played on a significant role on what one was allowed to do.  For Vronsky, as an army officer, an affair with a married women is a badge of respect to his comrades.  For Anna, it makes her a high society pariah and her husband a cuckold.  Anna can never have the normal life she had before - going to the opera causes a scene and people do not want to be associated with her.  All she has left in this world is her illicit lover.  When Vronsky shows the slightest wavering in his love for her, Anna gives up on life and throws herself beneath a train.  She cannot create her own definition of happiness without the affirmation of Russian society. 

Comparisons are often drawn between Madam Bovary and Anna Karenina.  What I remember from my reading of Madam Bovary was a woman who could not find happiness.  Like Anna, she eventually commits suicide.  However, Emma Bovary's death is tied more to ennui and a lack of purpose, although losing her lover does contribute.  Anna's death is more connected to her lover - and her relationship is more destructive to all the parties involved. 

Tolstoy seems to suggest that emotion, dominating rational thought, can be lead to one's downfall.  However, we also find that emotion may be the only way to understand life and death.  When Levin's brother is dying, Levin is paralyzed by his intellect.  His wife Kitty reacts with compassion and thoughtfulness to comfort Nicolai, and she does not dwell on the great questions of life and existence.  Emotion has a place in this world - it helps us deal with situations where rational thought cannot.  However, our emotions can also lead us astray if we cannot control them.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

These are among the most famous lines in literature, and the opening lines to Anna Karenina. This is essentially a story about three marriages:

Levin and Kitty are truly in love, but they still need to work through their misunderstandings and miscommunications.   At a deep level they connect, and they have the stability and stamina to survive any assault on their marriage. Levin is Tolstoy's autobiographical projection in this novel (not surprisingly he is heroic).

Stiva and Dolly are in a staid, lifeless marriage of conventiality.  In the beginning of the novel, Stiva is caught in an affair with the household's French governess.  Dolly is unhappy and she is essentially a single parent (Russian elite-style), raising their children without Stiva's help. She is a "mother hen" with her chicks, married to a husband who is draining their fortune, but she cannot leave. 

Anna Karenina is married to the cold and disciplined Alexey Karenin.  Recoiling from this, she falls into a passionate affair with the young, rich and handsome Alexey Vronsky.  Although initially a rational character, Anna loses self-control and abandons reason for her new love.  This affair ultimately leads to her destruction - as well as ruining the lives of her husband and Vronsky. 

Before I dive into a review of Anna Karenina, let me tell you something about the book.

First, there are A LOT of characters.  I would guess close to a hundred.  Tolstoy gets inside everyone's head - even Levin's dog has an internal monologue!  In addition, each character has up to four names.  There is the first and last name, the patronymic (which varies if they are female or male) and there is also each character's sobriquet.  It intially made it quite difficult to keep track of all the characters.

The major characters (click to enlarge)

Anna Karenina is like War and Peace - it is a very long book.  There are many sequences where Tolstoy introduces his own political and spiritual philosophy, which reminds me of reading Ayn Rand (another Russian author I've reviewed).  However, I did enjoy reading about what life was like for the Russian aristocracy in the 19th century.  It does not seem at all surprisingly that the Communist Revolution took place seven years after Tolstoy's death. I do not understand all the political problems of that time period, however, Tolstoy hints that socialism would be a preferable form of government for the masses of newly freed serfs (i.e. peasants).  I think Tolstoy was either quite prescient or his novels helped usher in the revolution he foretold.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), one of the great Russian novelists, is most well-known for his two epic stories War and Peace and Anna Karenina.   While War and Peace deals with history and national conflict, Anna Karenina focuses on conflict of a more personal nature - marriage. 

Leo Tolstoy continues the long tradition of authors writing stories from their own personal experience.  Tolstoy was born into the elite of Tsarist Russia on his family estate of Yasnaya Polyana (Bright Field).  He studied French, English, Greek and read philosophy from Voltaire, Rousseau and Hegel.  In both War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy describes in intimate detail the lives and daily minutia of wealthy Russians and frequently uses French, the language of the elite, in his works.  Although he was a land-holding member of the Russian aristocracy, he felt an affinity for the peasants who worked his land.  He tried to engineer a program where his peasants would take responsibility for the land and collect their own profits.  It failed - largely because the peasants distrusted anyone from the aristocracy.  This same scheme is reproduced in Anna Karenina by the character, Levin - and also fails.  However, Levin's courting and marriage to Kitty, an autobiographical reproduction of Tolstoy's own marriage, is quite successful. 

During his lifetime, Tolstoy became one of the Russia's most celebrated writers.  Rather than embrace this phenomenon, Tolstoy eschewed the spotlight and in his later life turned toward spiritualism, self-discovery and helping improve the plight of the poor, oppressed and unfortunate.  

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Jack Kerouac: On the Road

The hippies of the 1960's would not have existed without the "Beat Generation" of the 1950's. But what is a Beatnik? Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) was one of the most influential contributors to the "Beat Generation", a group of iconoclastic writers whose controversial works included references to promiscuous sex, drug use and a rejection of materialism and traditional values.  Kerouac's most well-known novel, On the Road, is regarded as one of the most influential novels of the 20th Century and a pure expression of the Beatnik lifestyle.

Before I read On the Road I already knew about its cultural significance.  In its day, this short novel shocked society with its explicit sex and drug use.  Reading it today it does not feel that offensive.  However, realizing that most of this semi-autobiographical tale takes place around 1947-48 is quite amazing to me.  This feels like 1968, not 1948, so I can see what it was influential for its time. 

The story is told from the point of view of Salvatore "Sal" Paradise, who is filling the autobiographical role of Jack Keruoac.  The other main character is the free-spirited, reckless (and slightly bi-polar) Dean Moriarty, who Keruoac based on his friend Neal Casssady.  A large cast of other characters interact with Sal and Dean as they travel back and forth across the country from New York, Chicago, Denver, Texas and California. 

Dean Moriarty is the quintessential care-free spirit who loves to "dig" life, people and places.  However, he cannot hold any long-term commitments to his girlfriends, wives, children or friends. In fact, at the end of the novel he eventually even abondons his travel companion Sal who has fallen ill in Mexico with dysentery.  Sal seems enthralled by Dean, since even he cannot resist his overwhelming energy and enthusiasm for life - although he feels himself reluctantly carried on by Dean's impulsive, frenetic activities. 

Traveling across the country in the late 1940's was very different than today and I enjoyed the visual depictions of the scenery as much as the story.  I think we have all seen people who were possessed by angels and demons like Dean Moriarty; people who captivate us and pulled us into their world.  Even at the end of the book, when Sal sees once again the true "Dean Moriarty" he still feels a longing to be around his crazy friend.   

Friday, May 11, 2012

Dickens: Great Expectations

Charles Dickens wrote some of the greatest novels in the English language: Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield.  However, many regard Great Expectations as his best work.  This is the first novel of Charles Dickens I have read (living up to my blog title).   Partially an autobiographical tale, Great Expectations follows the life of Pip, a boy of humble origins who comes into great wealth and must adapt to his new circumstances.
Pip grows up on the marshy grounds east of London in the early part of the 19th century.  He is destined to be a member of the "lower class" working as a blacksmith, something that Pip feels is beneath him.  Suddenly an unknown benefactor decides to bestow Pip with great wealth and turn him into a gentleman.  As Pip pivots from pauper to prince his relationships with friends, family and acquaintances changes and Pip becomes haughty and supercilious.  This sets him up well the hubric shock that comes at the latter part of the novel.

Dickens throws at  us the themes of guilt, justice, social mobility and feelings of self-loathing.  I have read that the characters in this novel are somewhat one-dimensional, but I never thought that.  However, I do think Dickens overloaded this book with descriptions of places and settings - that is both his gift and his vice. 

One the great things for me is seeing the convict Magwich and the wealthy, old recluse Miss Havisham both try to turn their charges into representations of their desire for revenge.  Magwich wants to prove that he can make anyone noble and Miss Havisham wants to destroy the egos and hearts of men, as her heart was once broken.  It is also a story a redemption, with several characters mending their ways after undergoing their trials.

The character of Pip is one of my favorites.  Watching him change from a boy to a man in Dickens's autobiographical way is enlightening.  Pip is one of the few characters I have read who actively engages is self-reflection and he tries to improve himself constantly throughout the book.  However, he struggles against his own wealth and "expectations" which causes him to treat people as less than equal.  It is an important message that we sometimes may get what we wish for, but we may not like the person we become when we get there.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse-five

Slaughterhouse-five follows the life of Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier who is captured in the Battle of the Bulge in WW2 and transferred to the eastern Germany city of Dresden.  Here he observes the horrific loss of life and destruction which occurs during the fire-bombing of Dresden.  After the war, Billy becomes a successful optometrist, marries a wealthy but plain woman, and has several children. 

Then on the night of Billy's daughter's wedding, Billy is captured by aliens called the "Tralfamadorians" and is kept in their zoo.

It is never clear to me if the Tralfamadorians really exist or if they are just a way for Billy to deal with the aftermath of the war, the meaninglessness of life or some pre-existing mental condition.  After the war, Billy starts reading science fiction novels and reflecting on his own experiences during the war. Therefore I'm guessing that the creation of the Tralmadorians may be a coping mechanism to help Billy understand his own post-traumatic stress and the seemingly pointless loss of life and destruction he has seen. 

A typical Tralfamdorian
The Tralfamadorians capture Billy, but do not hold him prisoner. In fact, they show Billy how to travel through time.  The Tralfamadorians live life in 4-D, meaning they see life not as a linear series of events, but they observe everything simultaneously.  This ability allows Billy to at one moment be at his daughter's wedding, the next be back in Dresden during WW2, and the next seeing the moment of his own death decades later.  Billy is "unstuck" in time. Consequently, the story in this novel constantly jumps forward and backward in time, which allows Vonnegut to put together related events separated by many years.

So what happens when you live life in 4-D?

Seeing everything happen at once, Billy learns that he cannot change anything.  It's not because he would not want to, but because everything has already happened.  The decisions have already been made and he is just a passive observer along for the ride.  The deaths, the births, the is all just going to happen.  Billy watches war movies forwards and backwards, but they always turn out the same.  The rest of us see life as a series of cause-and-effect decisions.  However, Billy knows that everything is already predestined to occur and causality is just an illusion we use to understand our world.  As the Tralfamadorians tell Billy, "free will" is an Earthling concept and is a delusion unique to our species.  Of course living in 4-D seemingly removes us from personal responsibility.  Why do we care what our actions are if they do not matter? 

"So it goes"

After the bombing of Dresden, an American soldier named Edgar Derby is accused of looting a teapot from a burned out cellar. He is subsequently executed by the Germans.  Experiences like this in the novel highlight the absurdity of our existence. To survive the Battle of the Bulge, the Bombing of Dresden and to then be killed for taking a teapot trivializes Derby's life.  This theme is repeated in Slaughterhouse-five and is often followed by the phrase "So it goes", as if there was no other way for things to turn out. This is probably the most popular phrase written in any book by Vonnegut, because it sums up so much in just three words.  Really bad things are going to happen in life; and really good things may also happen.   You cannot always explain or understand why these things occur. They are just going to happen, so deal with it.  That is life.  So it goes.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) was an American writer and left-leaning intellectual.  He was known for being an outspoken supporter of human rights and vehemently opponent of war - especially the recent war in Iraq.  Part of this may be because Vonnegut served in the American army during WW2 and was captured during the Battle of the Bulge.  He was transfered to a prisoner of war camp in eastern Germany, near Dresden.  Here he witnessed one the of the most destructive events of WW2 - the Bombing of Dresden.

It is estimated that up to 135,000 people died in the fire bombing of Dresden and it is regarded by many as a war crime committed by the Americans and British.  Dresden was declared an Open City, it had no significant military value and the bombing was done just months before the end of the WW2.   Kurt Vonnegut survived the bombing because the prisoners he was with were in the basement of a slaughterhouse (Schlachthof) outside the city.  Ironically those in the slaughterhouse were safe, while those outside were slaughtered. 
Dresden destroyed
Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners were ordered by the Germans to collect the dead and decaying bodies from the rubble of the city, clawing their way through bomb shelters and cellars to collect rotting and incinerated corpses.  Eventually there proved to be just too many bodies, so the Germans began cremating corpses on the spot.  A few months later Soviet troops entered the city and the war was over. Vonnegut's experience in WW2, and witnessing the Bombing of Dresden, became the inspiration for his book Slaughterhouse-five, Vonnegut's most well-known novel.

Dresden was called the "Florence on the Elbe", the most beautiful city in Germany.  Seeing such pointless destruction and massive loss of life at the very end of the war left a profound mark on Vonnegut.  Slaughterhouse-five directly tackles the meaninglessness of life when we are confronted by situations beyond our control.  In affect, everything is beyond our control, but we must find a way to accept that live a meaningful existence.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


Catch-22 has a rich supply of characters and they are impossible to detail in a short blog post.  The main character, Captain John Yossarian, is a bombardier who desperately tries to avoid flying missions by feigning illnesses.  He is haunted throughout the novel by the death of his squadron gunner, Snowden, who is fatally wounded on a mission. Yossarian tries to save him but patches the wrong wound. Later, throughout the book, Yossarian seems far more concerned with self-preservation and satisfying immediate needs. In some ways Yossarian reminds me of Meursault from Camus's book The Stranger, since they both live in the moment. Of course in war it is difficult to plan for the future and the moment may be all you may have. 

The other characters deal with the war in their own unique way.  There are warmongers like Colonel Cathgart who keeps raising the number of missions men must fly before they are done.  Likewise General Peckem is more concerned about outshining and defeating his fellow General Dreedle (who he calls the real enemy).  Opportunists also flourish, like Milo Minderbinder who starts up a syndicate distributing goods throughout Europe and the Mediterranean (essentially war profiteering).  There are also idealists like Lieutenant Nately who believes the war is just and that his prostitute girlfriend is a modern Dulcinea (ala Don Quixote).  There is a building tension with the escalating mission numbers called for my Colonel Cathgart, the increase in erratic and desperate behavior in the airmen and the continuing deaths which highlight every one's mortality as they climb back into the plane for one more mission.

One of my favorite moments in the books is when Yossarian is asked by a doctor to pretend he is a dying soldier for a family that has come to visit their son, Giuseppe. The son has already died, but the doctor does not want to disappoint them. He therefore tells Yossarian to fill in. Yossarian insists on being called by his name and not Giuseppe. Despite this, the family treats him like their son and brother.  The critical question is: does it really matter who they see?  After all, "he's dying" just like everyone else.  Their son is already dead - would they rather see his remains? Giuseppe's mother eventually says "What difference does it make?"

Joseph Heller and Catch-22

Joseph Heller (1923-1999) was an American author most well-known for his novel “Catch-22”, a book which contributed a new term to our cultural lexicon.  A "Catch-22" is an unsolvable dilemma in which an individual cannot avoid failure because of contradictions in the rules. In the novel Catch-22, this is initially presented in the case of a U.S. Army Air Forces bombardier who wants to be grounded from combat flight.  This will only happen if the flight surgeon deems him "unfit to fly", and any pilot who wants to keep flying such dangerous missions is certainly crazy and "unfit".  However, to request an evaluation the person must be sane, therefore they cannot be declared "unfit". Thus, it is impossible to be called "unfit".  This is called by the doctor the catch,  "Catch-22". 

The events in the novel Catch-22 occur during WW2, near the Italian Front, and involve units in the U.S. Army Air Corps.  Like many authors Heller wrote from experience. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corp in WW2 as a B-25 bombardier on the Italian Front, flying over 60 missions just like the main character in the book, John Yossarian.

Catch-22 could be characterized as an anti-war novel since it presents the meaninglessness of war for the average Joe, the capricious and illogical reason of generals and commanders and the tortuous bureaurocratic ineptitude of the entire war-making machinery.   The characters in this novel are particularly interesting and I imagine they are drawn from Heller's own experience. However, Heller has stretched the attributes and idiosyncrasies of these individuals to the point of absurdity, but that works great in a novel like Catch-22 where the central theme is absurdity.