Results for “straussian reading”
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Star Wars: Another Straussian Reading

Tyler’s artful reading of Star Wars inspires my own Straussian reading.

The Star Wars saga consists of 6 chapters.  Six equals 2 times 3. Three is now and for
quite sometime has been considered a good number, as in the holy trinity, but in former
times it was also and even primarily considered an evil number, as in three makes a crowd. So
‘twice 3’ might mean both good and evil, and hence
altogether; a balance of good and evil, surely the central theme of the entire saga.

The public choice economics of Star Wars: A Straussian reading

The only spoilers in this post concern the non-current Star Wars movies.  Stop reading now if you wish those to remain a surprise.

The core point is that the Jedi are not to be trusted:

1. The Jedi and Jedi-in-training sell out like crazy.  Even the evil Count Dooku was once a Jedi knight.

2. What do the Jedi Council want anyway?  The Anakin critique of the Jedi Council rings somewhat true (this is from the new movie, alas I cannot say more, but the argument could be strengthened by citing the relevant detail).  Aren’t they a kind of out-of-control Supreme Court, not even requiring Senate approval (with or without filibuster), and heavily armed at that?  As I understand it, they vote each other into the office, have license to kill, and seek to control galactic affairs.  Talk about unaccountable power used toward secret and mysterious ends.

3. Obi-Wan told Luke scores of lies, including the big whopper that his dad was dead.

4. The Jedi can’t even keep us safe.

5. The bad guys have sex and do all the procreating.  The Jedi are not supposed to marry, or presumably have children.  Not ESS, if you ask me.  Anakin gets Natalie Portman; Luke spends two episodes with a perverse and distant crush on his sister Leia, leading only to one chaste kiss.

6. The prophecy was that Anakin (Darth) will restore order and balance to the force.  How true this turns out to be.  But none of the Jedi can begin to understand what this means.  Yes, you have to get rid of the bad guys.  But you also have to get rid of the Jedi.  The Jedi are, after all, the primary supply source and training ground for the bad guys.  Anakin/Darth manages to get rid of both, so he really is the hero of the story.  (It is also interesting which group of “Jedi” Darth kills first, but that would be telling.)

7. At the happy ending of “Return of the Jedi”, the Jedi no longer control the galaxy.  The Jedi Council is not reestablished.  Luke, the closest thing to a Jedi representative left, never becomes a formal Jedi.  He shows no desire to train other Jedi, and probably expects to spend the rest of his life doing voices for children’s cartoons.

8. The core message is that power corrupts, but also that good guys have power too.  Our possible safety lies in our humanity, not in our desires to transcend it or wield strange forces to our advantage.

What did Padme say?: “So this is how liberty dies, to thunderous applause.”

Addendum: By the way, did I mention that the Jedi are genetically superior supermen with “enhanced blood”?  That the rebels’ victory party in Episode IV borrows liberally from Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”?  And that the much-maligned ewoks make perfect sense as an antidote to Jedi fascism?

What I’ve been reading

1. Ian Morris, Geography is Destiny: Britain and the World: A 10,000 Year History.  None of the book is bad, and half is quite interesting.  Think of the treatment as “Deep Roots for Brexit,” though willing to noodle over earlier and more interesting topics in history.  From a good FT review by Chris Allnutt: “Morris succeeds in condensing 10,000 years into a persuasive and highly readable volume, even if there are moments that risk a descent into what he seeks to avoid: “a catalogue of men with strange names killing each other”, as historian Alex Woolf put it.”  Now if only he would explain why their hot and cold water taps don’t run together…

2. Michel Houellebecq, Interventions 2020.  Grumpy non-fiction essays, with plenty of naive anti-consumerism.  You need to read them if you are a fan, but I didn’t find so much here of interest.  I was struck by his nomination of Paul McCartney (!) as the most essential musician, with Schubert next in line.  Mostly it is MH being contrary.  He has earned the right, but he wasn’t able to make me care more.

3. Frank O’Connor, “Guests of the Nation.”  One of the best short stories I have read, Irish.  Can’t say any more without spoilers! 11 pp. at the link.

4. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest.  Has anyone done a systematic accounting of which Vietnam era fictional works have held up and which not?  Maybe this one gets a B+?  Not top drawer Le Guin, but good enough to read, and better yet if you catch the cross-cultural references and all the anthropological background works.

5. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, some cheap paperback edition.  I did a quick, non-studied reread of this, in prep for the new Cambridge University Press reissue edition due out June 30, which has excellent notes and I will study and reread in more detail.  One of the very best books!  Not only is the story fully engaging and deeply humorous, but it is one of the seminal tracts on progress (largely skeptical), a blistering take on political correctness, wise on the virtues and pitfalls of travel, and one of the first novels to truly engage with science and politics and their interaction.  Straussian throughout.  Swift is one of the very greatest thinkers and writers and his output has held up remarkably well.

Philosopher J. emails me about free speech and Straussianism

I won’t add extra formatting, here goes (and here is my original post):

“Nice point about a Straussian reading of the free speech letter, and the general constraints of working in groups…But I have this worry about your post. I am not myself a Straussian, but I will express the point as a way of taking further the Straussianism already in your post. Maybe this is what you intend, so that a post making a Straussian point explicit should have a kind of meta-Straussian point. But, here goes: Taking your point about working in groups, I’m worried about you saying:

  • we have a new bunch of “speech regulators” (not in the legal sense, not usually at least) who are especially humorless and obnoxious and I would say neurotic

I would think the Straussian position (in the fuller sense, not just the sense of covert or hidden) would be that working in a group, in a city (or state, country, etc.), always requires constraints — some way of encoding and reproducing enough of a common morality to make living together and coordination possible. From the position of “the philosophers” (as Straussians would say, but in this case I’m thinking of you) these may always be humorless, obnoxious, and maybe neurotic too. So why not think that the old speech regulators were equally so, just enforcing different rules? Why not think we’ve moved from rules of propriety (e.g. more censorship of sexual content, for example), to rules forbidding racism, etc.? You might then think that recent changes have broadened the openness for some kinds of speech. People I know who are interested in police violence, and remedies, report experiencing such a broadening.

An optional addition to this thought would be the idea that different sets of codes, equally and unfortunately all-too humorless, can still do better and worse judged with respect to the good, as Platonist-Straussians would say. In that sense, I would think the new humorless codes an improvement.

Granted, there is a strong strand in Straussianism that would think it just most important that there is some way for “the philosophers” to be able to have some space free of such codes to do the actually important stuff (as they see it) in ways that are not humorless, etc. But even that strand in no way holds the standard is that “the philosophers” should be freely expressing their views *publicly*! I would think that this is a pretty essential part of the point of Straussianism in the first place.

thanks as always for your work and the inspiration to think less about raising and lowering statuses, less from the perspective of Platonic thumos, as the Straussians would put it…”

TC again: More anonymity!  Hmm…

What I’ve been reading

Roderick Floud, An Economic History of the English Garden.  Every page of this book does indeed have economics.  It just does not have interesting economics.  Which may mean that gardens are not so interesting from an economic point of view.  Which in turn would make this a good book.  But not an interesting book.

Ajantha Subramanian, The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India.  A critique of casteism and growing inequality, this book also doubles as a fascinating history of IIT.  Best read in Straussian fashion as a sympathetic story of origins.

Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion & The Future of Clothes.  Some parts of this book have bad economics and extreme mood affiliation, but in general it has more actual information than other books on the same topic and at times the author makes decent external cost arguments against the current system of clothes production.  So a qualified recommendation, at least I am glad I read it, even though some parts are obviously too sloppy.

Razeen Sally, Return to Sri Lanka: Travels in a Paradoxical Island.  People do not think enough about Sri Lanka, including in the social sciences!  It is a richer and nicer country than what most people are expecting, and it is good for studying both conflict and ethnic tensions.  This memoir — information rich rather than just blather — is one good place to get you started.

David Goldblatt, The Age of Football: The Global Game in the Twenty-First Century.  Football meaning soccer of course, this book covers how soccer interacts with politics in many particular countries, including Africa, and just how much the game has grown in global markets.  Mostly informative, good if you wish to read a book about this topic (I don’t).

Conversations with Zizek.  Maybe the best introduction to why Žižek is a richer thinker than his critics allege?  The book serves up insights on a consistent basis, and there is a minimum of jargon.  Marcus Pound had a good blurb: “Audacious and vertiginous, this book is everything one expects from him, a heady mix of psychoanalysis, politics, theology, philosophy, and cultural studies that will leave the reader both exhausted and exhilarated.”

What I’ve been reading

Vaclav Smil, Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities.  This book was too much a pile of facts for my taste — and facts I already know — but it is about the most important topic, namely growth and economic growth, so some of you should read it.  When you get right down to it, there are worse things than a pile of facts!

Swapan Dasgupta, Awakening Bharat Mata: The Political Beliefs of the Indian Right.  What do those people actually believe and why?  A summary and also a collection of original texts, strongly recommended for insight into one of the world’s most important nations and thus one of the world’s most important intellectual movements.

Gabriel García Marquez, The Scandal of the Century, and Other Writings.  His early journalistic pieces are a revelation, both for their connections to a Borges-Cortázar style, and for how they show the roots of his later more literary productions.  His best-known work is perhaps overrated, but his body of work as a whole is still considerably underrated, and this volume will add to your appreciation of him.

I’ve only browsed Owen Matthews, An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent, but it seems to be based on a remarkable amount of original research.  I do not care so much about the history of spying, but for some of you this should be a very good book.

Sarah L. Quinn, American Bonds: How Credit Markets Shaped a Nation.  Less broad than the title suggests, this is still a clear and useful history of some parts of American securitization, starting with such (important) oddities as the Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916.

Adam Minter, Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale delivers exactly what readers of Adam’s previous work would and should expect.  I am a big Adam Minter fan.

Here is what Ben Casnocha has been reading.

Eric Nelson, The Theology of Liberalism: Political Philosophy and the Justice of God is an interesting look at Pelagianism and related free will ideas as the possible origin for classical liberal ideas.  But is free will so important?  Isn’t there a Hayekian/Calvinist/Straussian case for the limits of political power?  Do the Pelagian roots of liberalism collapse more into current progressivism?  In any case I found this book both readable and stimulating, the discussion of the early theology of Rawls was interesting too.

Rereading *The Moon is a Harsh Mistress*

Yes, by Robert A. Heinlein.  I wasn’t expecting too much from this one, which I last read at age 13.  Published in 1966, it nonetheless holds up very well and in fact has aged gracefully.  It is surprisingly feminist, not at all dewey-eyed about actual rebellion, does not sound antiquated in its tech issues (e.g., malicious AI), has China as central to geopolitics and circa 2076 Greater China controls most of southeast Asia, and the book is full of economics and public choice.  TANSTAAFL is coined, but when understood as a section heading it is actually a Burkean slogan, not a libertarian or Friedmanite idea.  The lunar rebellion does not achieve independence easily or by keeping its previous friendly nature, nor does Earth receive those “grain shipments” gratis, so to speak.  Burke is the Straussian upshot of the whole book — beware societies based on new principles!  This is also perhaps the best novel for understanding the logic of a future conflict with North Korea, furthermore Catalonians should read it too.  Most of all, I recall upon my reread that this book was my very first exposure to game-theoretic reasoning.

NB: The “character” of Adam Selene is poking fun at H.G. Wells’s lunar Selenites, from The First Man in the Moon, arguably suggesting they descended from earlier human settlers.

What I’ve been reading

1. Peter Sloterdijk, Selected Exaggerations: Conversations and Interviews, 1993-2012.  No, he’s not a fraud, and this volume is probably the best introduction to his thought.  Is there an extended argument here?  I am not sure, but I did enjoy this bit:

The existential philosophers have greatly overstated homelessness.  In fact, people sit in their apartments with their delusions and cushion themselves as best they can.

But why does he have to follow up with?:

Living means continuously updating the immune system — and that is precisely what foam theory can help us show more clearly than before.

In the German-speaking world he passes for one of the most important world thinkers.

2. Declan Kiberd, After Ireland: Writing the Nation from Beckett to the Present.  A very high quality and original look at how Irish literature reflects the nation’s development, though it assumes a fair knowledge of the works being discussed.

3. Fred Hersch, Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life in and Out of Jazz.  How someone from a previous generation a) became a star jazz pianist, b) discovered gay liberation, and c) woke from a coma to resume a miraculous career.

4. Stephen Greenblatt, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.  In general I am a Greenblatt fan, and not persuaded by the critics of his popularizations, but this book is not doing it for me.  For the Hebrew Bible I prefer to read densely argued Straussians.

5. William Ian Miller, The Anatomy of DisgustMiller’s books from the 1990s remain an underrated source of “stuff for smart people.”  His book on disgust could be the best in that series, for me this is a reread and yes it did hold up.

A Straussian neoreactionary review of *The Complacent Class*

The specific thinkers cited for ‘cyclical models of history’ are Vico, Spengler, and Toynbee, in that order.

With that triple-burst trigger pull, the race to a second, Straussian reading begins.

Taking a cue from those statements, consider that the book itself might be a cycle. Read forwards, it is a series of slightly overcooked thinkpieces that ends on a surprisingly bold note. Read backwards, one finds it hides a thrilling call to arms.

This is a contrarian reading; one I make no claim should actually be attributed to Cowen himself. Nonetheless, the coherences pile up too neatly to simply be ignored once seen.

There is much more of substance at the link.  That is from Thomas Barghest, via Justin.  By the way, someone else did a long “Alt Right” take on the book and emailed it to me, and I meant to link to it, but I misplaced the email somehow.  If you email it to me, or leave it in the comments, I’ll put it into Links tomorrow.  And here is just a wee bit more:

Cowen shows us that if we had the courage of immigrants and foreigners to ignore contemporary mores and treat our strengths as something to take pride in rather than something to hide, we might restore our culture to a dynamic greatness. Such honest pride in ourselves and our abilities was ours only a half-century ago, before the 60’s, he implies. It is not so long gone.

However, a proper neoreactionary, he doesn’t pretend we can simply wish ourselves there. Americans’ current complacency is not pure timidity. The transcendent is not something we’ve simply lost. It was crushed, stolen, and turned against us.

Overall, you guys crack me up, and I do mean “guys.”

What I’ve been reading

1. Ousmane Oumar Kane, Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa.  This excellent book clarified many aspects of West African and also Nigerian history for me, most of all how it connects to the earlier North African civilizations.

2. Sheelah Kolhatkar, Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street.  I cannot vouch for the contents and allegations, which focus on Steven A. Cohen and his hedge fund career, but this is a highly engaging and better researched than usual look at the legal case against him.

3. Mark R. Patterson, Google, Yelp, LIBOR, and the Control of Information.  Data fraud, data fraud, data fraud, welcome to 2016 yes you should be reading more books on this topic.

4. Kevin Vallier, Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation, “…public reason liberalism, properly understood, realizes foundational liberal values while according religion a prominent and powerful role in public life.  I claim that, in theory and practice, public reason liberalism is far friendlier to religion in public life than both its proponents and opponents believe.”  There is a Straussian reading of this book too.

5. Aurelian Craiutu, Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes.  A much-needed perspective these days, from a very thoughtful scholar.

6. Gary Taubes, The Case Against Sugar.  My intuitions agree with this argument, plus jelly donuts don’t taste that good anyway.

What I’ve been reading

1. Hilda Hilst, With My Dog-Eyes: A Novel.  Life as an academic, as viewed by the Brazilian avant-garde.  This underappreciated novel is available in English for the first time, recommended to those who think they might like it.

2.Bengt Jangfeldt, Mayakovsky: A Biography.  A non-fiction work translated from Swedish to English is virtually guaranteed to be good.  This book brings major advances to our understanding of Mayakovsky’s life, although it is perhaps for those who already have an interest in the topic.  That’s me.

3. Roberta A. Ness, The Creativity Crisis: Reinventing Science to Unleash Potential.  A good overview of why innovativeness has declined and what might be done to restore it.

4. Tom Paulin, Writing to the Moment, Selected Critical Essays 1980-1996.  I loved this book, which (by a very important metric) caused me to buy at least five additional books on Amazon.  One of Ireland’s greatest poets writing an appreciation of other English-language poets and writers.  A 1996 book, but one of my most exciting reads for the year.

5. E.M. Forster, A Passage to India.  A very good reread, the Straussian in me remains convinced that the final “Hindu section” of the book somehow has to make sense.

Arrived in my pile is:

6. Andrew I. Gavil and Harry First, The Microsoft Antitrust Cases, which upon a brief perusal appears to be a very thorough and useful look at what the title promises.

What I’ve been reading

1. David Sterling, Yucatán: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition.  This cookbook is “too good” to actually cook from, but as account of food from Yucatán, along with history, photos, and recipes, it has to count as one of the year’s most notable publications.

2. Sebastian Edwards, Toxic Aid: Economic Collapse and Recovery in Tanzania.  He gives foreign aid to Tanzania an “F” for the 1961-1981 period, a “B minus” for 1981-1994, and a B+ for the latter part of that period.  Edwards is a top international economist and this is one of the best thought out books on foreign aid.

3. Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, The Upside of Your Dark Side.  Only some people should read this book.

4. Virginia Woolf, Flush: A Biography.  This one doesn’t get huge amounts of play, but it’s actually an awesome book about…a dawg.  Recommended, beautifully written and easy to read, Straussian too though you can read it straight up for fun as well.

5. Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman.  A charming tale for bibliophiles, centering around a Lebanese woman who translates one classic novel a year, but for herself only.

What I’ve Been Reading

1. Love, Life, Goethe: Lessons of the Imagination from the Great German Poet, by John Armstrong.  The author does not demonstrate overwhelming expertise but this is nonetheless not a bad place to start on the most neglected of all the great writers.

2. The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, by Mark Lilla.  Why Schleiermacher really matters, how Kant painted himself into a corner trying to solve the problems laid out by Rousseau, and why it all springs from Hobbes.  I found this well above average for its genre, though you must have a taste for Straussian-like books where big ideas clash at the macro level and there is little attempt at any kind of empirical resolution.

3. How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves, from the Board to the Boardroom, by Garry Kasparov.  This is a fun book, except that life mostly doesn’t imitate chess.  Chess is characteristic for its lack of self-deception; it is hard to avoid knowing where you stand in the hierarchy and excuses are few and far between.  That’s why most chess players are depressed.  Kasparov seems to save his self-deception for politics; let’s hope he is still alive a year from now.

4. Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, by Richard Rhodes.  This favorite book of Jason Kottke is first-rate non-fiction, it is also one of the best books on the Cold War.

5. The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa.  One of the best studies of the psychology of political power and the connection between tyranny and the erotic.  A fun albeit sometimes harrowing read.  Another superb translation by Edith Grossman, might she be the best translator ever?

The Devil Wears Prada — a Straussian interpretation

Imagine a beautiful, pseudo-nerdy and ultimately devious Anne Hathaway [Andy] receiving a job at a top fashion magazine, more or less by accident.  At first she is baffled and fails but soon she is dressing up to fit the role and climbing the ladder of social success, ruthlessly at times.  Her model and mentor is Miranda, the magazine’s editor, an empire-builder played by a commanding and sexier-than-ever Meryl Streep.  Andy is transformed by a taste of success and she abandons her boyfriend, friends, and father in her Hegelian quest to command the obedience of others.

Of course Andy is troubled along the way.  After all, but a few months ago she was editing the school newspaper at Northwestern and wearing frumpy (but oh so cute, to my eyes) sweaters.  I much prefer her size six to her later size four, and yes women really do look better without make-up.

The key moment and emotional center of the movie comes when Miranda [Meryl Streep] tells Andy [Anne Hathaway] that, contrary to her initial expectations, Andy reminds her very much of herself.  Andy runs out of the cab, supposedly rejecting the life of obsessive careerism, for [get this] a [low stress?] career of journalism. 

But does she reject the life of the Uebermensch?  Andy had distanced herself from her hot but low-status boyfriend.  She never gets back together with him, and we learn that they will live in separate cities.  We never see her boring loser friends again.  She had been rude to her dull dad [from Ohio] and is never seen making amends.  Wouldn’t a cornier movie have closed with a fading shot of Andy on the phone, smiling and saying "Hi, Dad, Happy Birthday!  I Love You!"  But this never happens.  She is too hard at work on her next feature story. 

In fact Andy is an irresistible She-Demon, every bit as powerful as the mentor she turned her back on.  Andy didn’t so much scorn Miranda as mimic her and pay homage to her.  Miranda [Meryl Streep] was right (is she ever wrong?): Andy is strong enough to be her own leader and build her own world.  That is why Andy had to leave the realm of Miranda; it was not big enough to fit two such ravenous and yes extremely sexy women.  If Camille Paglia reviewed this movie, she would find occasion to use the words "Gorgon" and "autochthonous."

Andy even rejects the famous free-lance writer ("Christian") whom she sleeps with for kicks ("I’ve run out of excuses" she says) and then unceremoniously abandons — "I’m not your baby!"  Having sniffed out her own capabilities, she is no longer content to play second fiddle in a relationship, no matter how handsome or successful the man.  She also tells this guy just how much she admires Miranda — Andy is quite sincere — and notes that Miranda’s behavior would be found totally acceptable and indeed admirable in a man.

And the poor little British girl Andy screwed over (and caused to be run over by a car, I might add, check the movie’s title) during her rise at the magazine?  She buys her off with a set of new clothes from Paris.  How Kantian of her.

Make no mistake about it, this is a movie about sheer power lust.  It is a movie of how that lust can be cloaked or shifted to another sphere but never denied.  Never bottled up.  Never stopped.  It is a delicious tale of social intrigue, ambition, class, and how much clothes really do matter.  And to take sweet Anne Hathaway — remember the wonderful but underrated Ella Enchanted?– and have her play Max Stirner — that is a mark of genius.

The movie has many other fine points, most of which were neglected by the film’s intended demographic.  Here is Michael Blowhard on Anne Hathaway.  Here is Wikipedia on the movie.

Here is my earlier post, a Straussian reading of Star Wars.  What will be next?