by Chris Berger
Roughly one year ago, a friend asked me what I read in a year. This got me thinking that it might be fun to keep track, so despite my typical aversion to New Year’s resolutions, I decided to start keeping a monthly record last January. This never went past updating a list on my laptop and posting a picture of my literary conquests on social media at the end of every month. And while it’s been fun to see what I’ve been able to work through in a given amount of time, as well as to reflect on how what I’m thinking has been informed by what I’m reading and vice versa, it occurred to me that a more lasting payoff could come from the practice than a fleeting vanity boost on social media. I’d like to strive for something more tangible and rigorous – given I’m sharing titles with a social media friend circle, why not offer a more substantial reflection, and to a wider audience that might be looking for their next read? Without further ado, I give you: Chris’s Reading List, November 2017.
Dear Committee Members – Julie Schumacher
“I understand that Troy has applied for the position of sales associate. This is a foreign concept to me: here in the academy we are unaccustomed to salesmanship of any kind, even to the faintest of efforts to make ourselves presentable or attractive to others.”
I love a good campus novel. Standing favourites include Richard Russo’s Straight Man and David Lodge’s Changing Places and Small World. I’ve recently added Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members to that list, and if you enjoy comedy in the realm of academia, I highly recommend this one.
This novel is written in the form of a series of letters of recommendation crafted by the protagonist, Jason Fitger, professor of English and creative writing in a department wracked by university budget cuts and academic politics. To wit, the offices used by the English department are in a constant state of siege as the economists have their space renovated (leaving the literati to suffer amidst a fog of particulate and constant construction racket), and Fitger finds himself sending a steady stream of letters on behalf of demanding students to unreceptive academic peers and administrative overlords.
The latter hardship is exacerbated by various prior faux pas and other baggage, including drunken emails, divorces, and affairs that make the recipients of these letters less than receptive to hearing Fitger out. There is a plot, of sorts, told through the course of these letters, spanning one academic year. Amongst letters recommending questionable colleagues and lackluster students, Fitger advocates tirelessly for one promising yet increasingly emotionally distressed protégé. This poor aspiring writer is blessed on the one hand with Fitger’s relentless backing yet cursed with his teacher’s indiscrete past with those who hold his future in their hands.
The biting, cynical, yet loving wit with which Schumacher endows her protagonist will have readers in stitches, especially if, like myself, they’ve had any firsthand experience with the trials and tribulations in that eccentric world we call academia. This book encapsulates in compact, quirky form why I love satire.
The End of History and the Last Man – Francis Fukuyama
“Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.”
I first read Francis Fukuyama’s most famous work when I was an undergrad. As a student, all I heard about Fukuyama’s book on campus was how Eurocentric and logocentric it was. For those who might be shaky with the jargon, this means it was imperialistic and awful. The book wasn’t assigned in any of my classes, but I decided to read it during one of the summer breaks in order to get some first-hand background on what I was hearing. What I got out of it was admittedly limited at this point in time, though this was through no shortcoming of the book but rather due to my own unpreparedness for the scope and weight of the content. I remember being vaguely impressed, though at the time I didn’t appreciate why. By then I had become enamored with the study of political philosophy and therefore knew enough to recognize that, whatever the intrinsic merits of the author’s theses and supporting arguments, his grasp and utilization of the history of political philosophy – and history, politics, and philosophy generally – were masterful. I also remember being puzzled at why it was so reviled.
My second reading of this book came a year or two after graduating. The motive was my recent introduction to the ideas of the great Hegelian-Marxist, Alexandre Kojeve, via my interest in Leo Strauss and the published debate between Strauss and Kojeve on the universal homogeneous state and, of course, the idea of the end of history. I recalled Kojeve’s name from Fukyama’s book in which it appears repeatedly, which hadn’t registered at the time due to my lack of familiarity with the reference. It was armed with the knowledge that the “end of history” from Fukuyama’s thesis was in fact Kojeve’s thesis that I went back for a second appraisal. With the foregoing in mind I came out of my second reading persuaded that the nearly unanimous censure of Fukuyama from my undergrad experience came from a place of misunderstanding, myopia, and partisan axe-grinding. While I favoured Strauss’s arguments for the overcoming of the modern crisis of reason over Kojeve’s historicism, I nevertheless came to the conclusion that Fukuyama’s Hegelian-Kojevian arguments were robustly defended on the basis of important, profound, and genuinely philosophical ideas. It was a book to be taken seriously.
In short, Fukuyama’s argument is that Hegel was essentially correct in proclaiming that “History” has come to an end. In saying this he does not mean, any more than Hegel did, that events will stop happening. The argument is a theoretical one concerning ideas: human beings will not develop a framework for ordering societies that can improve fundamentally on liberal democracy. There could conceivably be backslides or lateral refinements, but liberal democracy is as good as we’re likely to get. Liberal democracy is the culmination of the human, all too human struggle for recognition. It resolves the master-slave dialectic by making the individual master of himself. The problem comes in with the realization that not all human beings can seem to rest satisfied with recognition that is egalitarian, i.e. equal in principle to that any other individual is awarded. The desire for recognition is one manifestation of a passion called thumos by the ancient Greeks such as Plato. It is the root of pride and shame, the impulse to justice and anger at injustice and the desire to be recognized in accordance with one’s due worth. Isothumia is what we get when thumos is tempered as a desire for equal recognition; but megalothumia is the characteristic of those with outsized thumos who desire more. Megalothumia will remain a challenge even at the end of history; or rather, especially at the end of history when all are recognized, and equal recognition becomes boring. Some will always want more.
Round three of my study of this book was prompted by something Shadi Hamid, a scholar with the Brookings Institute, said on Twitter in 2016 about Fukuyama’s The End of History being eerily prescient about the current situation facing us in global politics. Specifically, Hamid cited the quote I include here at the opening of this section, which comes not from the book but from Fukuyama’s original (1989) essay on which his later book (1992) is based, “The End of History?” It has nagged at me since then. Readers who have been following long enough may recall a piece from late 2016 in which I argued that our politics has caught up with our theory and entered a postmodern age, in which truth and fact no longer hold as much weight and in which decisionism and sheer will are playing increasingly prevalent roles. This, I gather from observation and as well as from thinkers and commentators including Fukuyama and Hamid, is due in some measure to the restless, reactionary “boredom” and moral indignation directed against the bourgeois, liberal status quo. It’s with all of this in mind that I say that this third reading of The End of History and the Last Man has left the deepest impression on me, and it’s a disturbing one: Fukuyama may well have been more right than I could have guessed on my earlier two readings. It does not seem unreasonable to me to identify megalothumia as playing a role in the reaction against liberalism in the form of identity politics, which is nothing other than a radicalized politics of recognition. Reading his book with the benefit of hindsight granted by the most recent few years of world and domestic events, his predictions are downright spooky. I will leave it at saying that you should read (or re-read) this book ASAP.
Leo Strauss on Nietzsche’s ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ – ed. Richard L. Velkley
“This is Nietzsche’s fundamental problem: to find a way back to nature, but on the basis of the modern difficulty of conceiving of nature as the standard.”
If I was forced to name my favourite thinker of our time (note that I’ll be defining “our time” as “since Nietzsche”), I’d have to name Leo Strauss. He is the certainly the one I would credit as having the largest formative influence on my own thinking. As a Strauss enthusiast, it has been an exciting time in recent years as the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago has begun the monumental task of compiling, editing, and publishing the transcripts of Strauss’s lectures. The latest of these, published this year, is the 1959 course on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Edited, annotated, and with an introduction by venerable Strauss and Nietzsche scholar Richard Velkley, this volume, like the other course transcripts, offers a somewhat different Strauss than the one from his often dense, understated, and idiosyncratic books. This is a Strauss that cracks jokes, interacts patiently and generously with students, and unpacks weighty ideas and texts in a manner that is approachable and understandable without sacrificing detail or depth. Despite the difficulty of the subjects he treats, even in his published works Strauss was never one for technical jargon or obfuscation, and this trait is heightened in these often very colloquial lectures.
While Nietzsche was a central concern for Strauss (literally central in Strauss’s final book), Strauss’s direct engagements with Nietzsche are maddeningly rare amidst his multiple detailed commentaries on Plato, Maimonides, al-Farabi, Machiavelli, and Spinoza, among others. Yet Strauss mentions in his correspondence that Nietzsche dominated the thought of his youth, during which time he believed everything he understood Nietzsche to be saying. On top of this, the problems Strauss identifies as having been uncovered by Nietzsche, namely radical historicism, existentialism, and ultimately nihilism, are the key challenges of our time, to be remedied by confronting them with classical political rationalism and natural right, Strauss’s lifework. Strauss only addresses Nietzsche directly and explicitly in that central chapter of his final book I mentioned above (which, even more puzzlingly, is titled Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy). For these reasons, this new book is a boon for those who have been craving new leads in the effort to figure out the relation between Strauss and Nietzsche and how the former sees the latter as informing our current situation, and how we are to grapple with that.
Again, as I pointed out regarding Fukuyama’s book earlier, if it is true that we’re entering an age of postmodern politics, and postmodern thought generally, then we’d be well advised to develop our understanding of what this really means. We need to find a ground for our thinking and our action if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of Heidegger and the other reckless, ultimately shipwrecked minds that have wrought increasing havoc in the political realm in our time. Nature and reason have withered as standards for thought and action; in light of this, it is foolish to suppose that the commitment of someone like Heidegger to National Socialism was foolish and unconnected to his thought. Far from it: Heidegger’s political choice follows directly from his thought; if decision is all there is, then the only way of making sense of anything is to will the strongest, most uncompromising decision. Everything becomes agonistic. Nietzsche recognized in a way no earlier or later supposed nihilists could that the will to power implies and indeed requires hierarchy and rank-ordering. That in itself constitutes nature.
In this latest stage of (post)modernity, Nietzsche shows we are faced with the following problem: nature is indeed the basis of all history, i.e. the nonrational, indeterminate process of will to power and eternal return acting in the world. But also, according to us, everything we say or think about nature is historical. There is no possibility of appealing from history to nature or to reason. Strauss shows in his lectures that what is characteristic of Nietzsche is that he is aware of this difficulty and tries to resolve it by an ultimate appeal to nature, in a way that does not require also grounding it in reason. And this is the great difficulty now confronting all of us, whether we think about it in these same terms or not. We seek nature, but denigrate reason, and refuse to connect the two. Sooner or later something will have to give. Re-examining the arguable founder of our age with the guiding hand of one of the greatest interpreters of our age is a good way to go about reflecting on this problem.
Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, & Terror – Waller R. Newell
“However many times decent people express the hope that mankind has learned its lesson, the drive to tyrannize is a permanent passion in human psychology.”
Progress is all the rage. I don’t mean simply that we’re fond of improvement – that’s a truism. What I mean, rather, is the tacit and ubiquitous assumption that where we are now is better, more “advanced,” than wherever it was we came from. We’ve progressed from narrow-minded, violent, superstitious prejudice to enlightenment, prosperity, and social justice for all. In other words, we do not simply like improvement – we believe the human condition now is different from, and better than, what came before. We have a narrative understanding of progress, one might say a grand historical story that informs who we think we are and where we think we’re going. Yet there’s one irritating wrench that keeps getting thrown into the works of that narrative: the unpleasant fact of recurring tyranny.
The perennial reality of potential for tyranny is the point of departure for the recent work of Waller R. Newell, a professor of political theory at Carleton University. This is Newell’s second book on the subject. His earlier work, Tyranny: A New Interpretation, is geared more toward the academically inclined, specifically those with some familiarity with key texts in the history of political philosophy. As you might imagine, it’s a more theoretical book. Tyrants, however, is Newell’s contribution to the everyday reader – those who make it their business to become civically aware but who may not have, nor be much interested in, an in-depth academic analysis of the matter. The result is an eminently readable and (oddly enough) frequently funny history of tyrants from ancient times to the present day.
Newell structures his genealogy of the tyrant on three key categories: the garden variety tyrant, the reforming tyrant, and the millenarian tyrant. Tyrants have been with us since the first recognizable political relationships appeared. The garden variety tyrants are those who wield power for their own base gratification and self-interest (think Nero or Saddam Hussein), and the reforming tyrants are those like Cyrus, Caesar, or Napoleon who wielded their absolute power, albeit unilaterally and often violently, genuinely to benefit their societies in the longer run. But the last of these, the millenarian, is a uniquely modern phenomenon, says Newell. Contrary to many other recent commentators, Newell argues that it is not their access to technology that makes modern millenarian tyrants distinct from their garden variety and reforming forebears, but their access to a more deadly tool: ideology. Millenarian tyrants regard it as their task to bring about a fundamental and comprehensive cleanse of humanity, to remake it in the image of an all-encompassing utopian vision. This is the culprit behind the horrors of the Jacobin Terror through to the apocalyptic wars and genocides of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Newell takes an “old-fashioned” approach to his subject, understanding tyranny to be not simply a type of rule but a state of character, or more to the point, a defect or sickness of character (or soul). This hearkens back to Plato’s analysis in the Republic. Remaining true to this timeless insight, Newell ties his work together with an appeal to education, the cultivation of character to direct the passions and train the intellect. Viewed in this light, we might conclude that the modern social sciences and humanities are misguided in insisting to students that everything is ideology. If everything is ideology, there is no outside standard by which to adjudicate between ideologies, and in the best case to leave ideology behind and go it alone. Without this possibility, the strongest, the one that wins out, is the best. This is a recipe for decisionistic, zero-sum, all-or-nothing conflict. It’s an identity politics of ideas, in which mutual understanding and rational intercourse are impossible, so why bother? Given this, what are we doing other than nurturing the pool of prospective millenarians?
Newell’s book is a fascinating political history and astute work of political theory, but perhaps its greatest and most unexpected contribution is this call to look with a more critical eye to what our aims are in education, in terms of both pedagogical theory and institutional direction. It’s a remarkably timely book.
Munich – Robert Harris
“War is a fearful thing, and we must be very clear, before we embark on it, that it is really the great issues that are at stake, and that the call to risk everything in their defence, when all the consequences are weighed, is irresistible.”
If I ever need a fun read and don’t know where to turn, Robert Harris is a reliable go-to, and one of my favourite writers of historical fiction. He writes thrillers; not of the supernatural or horror variety, but in the political vein. Someone I know once described him as “like Dan Brown, but good.” I’d echo that (with due apology to Mr. Harris for the unflattering comparison). My favourites from him would have to include his Cicero trilogy and The Ghost (adapted into the film The Ghost Writer, starring Ewan McGregor, in 2010), but I’ve enjoyed them all. His latest offering is Munich, which explores the tense diplomatic talks leading up to the Nazi seizure of the Sudetenland in September, 1938.
This episode of history is famous for the humiliation (in hindsight) it inflicted on Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who prematurely declared “peace in our time” after his futile politicking with Adolf Hitler. Nevertheless, Harris paints a touchingly sympathetic portrait of this appeaser as a well-meaning, if a bit vain, leader trying to do right by a citizenry weary of the prospect of war and loathe to lose another generation of its young to the bloodbath of modern conflict.
However, Chamberlain remains a secondary character. The novel’s two protagonists are Paul Hartmann, a German diplomat serving under von Ribbentrop, and Hugh Legat, a secretary to Prime Minister Chamberlain and former college mate to Hartmann from years before the heightening of international tensions. These two underlings find themselves acting as unlikely pivot points in their ultimately cooperative efforts to guide Chamberlain toward a realistic insight into Hitler, in the case of Legat, and to stem the tide of Hitler’s militaristic avarice, in the case of Hartmann.
Given this novel is a thriller, I’ll spare the reader the details and recommend this read as great fun for history buffs and suspense junkies alike.
Photography by Chris Berger