Archive for the ‘political philosophy’ Category


Dictionary of Liberal Thought, edited by Duncan Brack and Ed Randall

13 October 2009

Continuing with posts of reviews originally written for Political Studies Review. I wrote several for the September 2008 issue, so I’ll probably spread them out over a few weeks in the interests of typing up reviews for a few other books.

Dictionary of Liberal Thought, edited by Duncan Brack and Ed Randall

The Liberal Democrat History Group, as its name suggests, is a study group dedicated to historical research and discussion on the Liberal Democrats (and both the predecessor parties, the Liberals and the SDP) and on liberalism as a political philosophy in general. The Group has compiled and published several reference books on liberalism, including the Dictionary of Liberal Biography and the Dictionary of Liberal Quotations. Now, in its most recent publication, the Group has looked at the broader history of liberalism in the Dictionary of Liberal Thought, a book which claims to cover the key theorists, ideas, and organisations that have shaped more than three centuries of liberal philosophy in Great Britain.

The Dictionary of Liberal Thought is organised alphabetically, but the ideas, organisations, and thinkers included in the text have their own separate indexes for quick reference. The book’s scope is slightly broader than might be expected — the entries on individuals, for instance, include not only classical liberals such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill but also individuals who have contributed to the overall development of British liberal thought, such as John Milton and Edmund Burke. More modern ‘liberals’ given a place in the dictionary include former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, Labour MP Anthony Crosland, and academic and Liberal Democrat peer Conrad Russell. Seemingly contrary ideologies and philosophies of liberalism are likewise included; barely three dozen pages separate Keynesianism and Libertarianism, for instance. A brief summary of the key ideas and a short list of suggested further readings on the individual, idea, or organisation in question serve as the introduction and conclusion to each of the entries in the dictionary.

Liberalism has had almost as many definitions as it has had people to define it, and the changing philosophies and ideologies that have accompanied these shifting perceptions of liberalism make it a challenge to compile a concise but comprehensive dictionary on the subject. As a reference book, the Dictionary of Liberal Thought provides a single-volume resource for those who are interested in studying these changing perceptions. And even though the dictionary’s primary focus is on British liberalism, the wide-reaching range of entries may prove useful to those curious about liberalism as it developed in Europe and America.

First published in Political Studies Review Vol. 6 No. 3 (September 2008): 361.
The definitive version is available at


A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

2 June 2009

Yes, still horribly backlogged in both my review posts and my non-review posts. Here’s a nice chewy review for the moment; when I have a few spare minutes to clean up another post or two, I hope to have more to talk about.

A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

In the early 1940s, British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell was living in the United States, attempting to find a job and attempting to hold his fast-dissolving third marriage together. He had lost several previous teaching posts, some because of financial difficulties at the scholarly institutions to which he had applied and some because he had fallen out with his employers, and the war made it all but impossible for him to try to return to England. Public protests against his controversial writings on sex and marriage had prevented him from taking an appointment at the College of the City of New York, and he was only saved from complete financial collapse by the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which offered him a post teaching the history of philosophy. Very short on cash, and struggling to keep both his personal and professional lives afloat, he compiled his Barnes Foundation lectures into a single comprehensive survey of the history of Western philosophy and published them in 1945 under the straightforward title A History of Western Philosophy. Russell’s history became an unexpected best-seller, saved him from complete financial ruin, and provided an steady income stream upon which he would depend for the rest of his life. Indeed, the book was a strong contributor to the body of literature for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1950 — and today, outside of the philosophical and mathematical communities, is possibly second only to Why I Am Not a Christian as the work for which Russell is best known today.

Russell divides his History of Western Philosophy into three parts, focusing on ancient (Greek and Roman) philosophy up through the third century CE, Catholic philosophy (which also includes bits about Jewish and Islamic philosophy) of the Church Fathers through St Thomas Aquinas and up to the Renaissance, and modern philosophy from the 1500s through the early 20th century and Russell’s own works. The first two parts receive much more attention than the final part, mainly because Russell’s attempts to show the founding principles and evoluation of various philosophical schools of thought require him to delve deeply into the works of the most influential ancient philosophers, particularly Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle. Russell makes very little pretense of being objective in his comments; it is more than clear which philosophers he likes and which he dislikes. Aristotle’s Ethics, for example, have an ’emotional poverty’ that ‘will be useful to comfortable men of weak passions’ — he acknowledges the work’s effect and influence on future generations of philosophers, but dismisses the work itself (and, for that matter, much of Aristotle’s other work). In contrast, he has high praise for Spinoza as both a person and a philosopher — in Russell’s words, Spinoza is ‘the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers’ — and the loving descriptions and generous assessments carry through the description of the man’s life and personality and into his work. Comments such as these make for alternately interesting and frustrating reading matter, all the way through the nearly 900-page book covering nearly three millennia of philosophic history.

In his autobiography, Russell defended his approach to the History of Western Philosophy by stating that ‘a man without bias cannot write interesting history’. Yet one conclusion which appears to be nearly universal among reviewers (including this reviewer) is that the History of Western Philosophy reveals far more about Russell’s own biases, prejudices, and personal philosophies than it does about those of any individual philosopher or philosophic tradition he surveys. He is prone to making authorial comments that may raise a few eyebrows, such as his remarks on Jewish history during the time of the Maccabees: ‘In enduring and resisting persecution the Jews of this time showed immense heroism, although in defence of things that do not strike us as important, such as circumcision and the wickedness of eating pork’ (316). In another digression, Russell’s strong belief in the need for a world government creeps into his discussion of Thomas Hobbes’ writings on the government: ‘Every argument that [Hobbes] adduces in favour of government…is valid in favour of international government. So long as national States exist and fight each other, only inefficiency can preserve the human race. To improve the fighting quality of separate States without having any means of preventing war is the road to universal destruction’ (557). In this light, the conclusions drawn in A History of Western Philosophy makes a good deal more sense after having read Russell’s massive Autobiography — at least, having more information about Russell’s background and circumstances may reduce the general frustration of reading the book and attempting to accept the author’s often peculiar conclusions at face value. As a history of Western philosophy, there are better works available…but as a reflection and even a microcosm of Bertrand Russell’s own political philosophies, this is one instance in which the book shows far more than it tells.


On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

14 April 2009

Although this review was written after those of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and William Hazlitt’s On the Pleasure of Hating, this volume happens to be the first book (chronologically speaking) in Penguin’s Great Ideas series.

On the Shortness of Life by Seneca (Penguin Great Ideas Series)

The amount of solid historical information on the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 5 BCE – 65 CE) is relatively thin, and most of what is known about him comes from his own writings and from scattered (and not always impartial) sources. What is certainly known is that he came from a distinguished family, and followed in his rhetorician father’s footsteps by getting involved in the turbulent political scene of the Roman Empire in the first century CE. Although his everyday life was caught up in the intrigue and violence that surrounded the affairs of emperors Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, Seneca’s thoughts and writings focused primarily on the contemplative life and bear out his devotion to the ideals of Stoic philosophy. Yet even after he had left public life, the continuing drama of the imperial family was never far away, and eventually Seneca fell victim to rumours that he had been part of a plot to assassinate Emperor Nero. He was ordered to commit suicide, which he did through the traditional method of opening veins to die of exsanguination. Although his personal reputation suffered somewhat from continuing rumours and criticism after his death, many of his writings have survived, including the three essays selected for On the Shortness of Life.

The Great Ideas selection of Seneca’s works contains three essays: De Brevitate Vitae (On the Shortness of Life), Ad Helviam matrem, De consolatione (Consolation to Helvia), and De Tranquillitate Animi (On Tranquility of Mind). The first, an essay written to his friend Paulinus, dwells on the sad condition of those who have little or no idea of how to live their lives, and waste their days and hours in meaningless frivolities or in frenzied and often fruitless activity. Contrary to those who fret about the shortness of a man’s time on earth, Seneca declares that ‘life is long if you know how to use it’, and recommends that Paulinus use his time well by turning to the writers of philosophers to learn more about how to live and die without fears or regrets. Continuing in this vein, the second essay is in the form of a letter addressed to his mother Helvia, providing her with consolation at the news that he would be sent into exile (written when he was banished at the behest of Emperor Claudius in 42 CE). Seneca takes an unconventional approach to dealing with the expectation of his mother’s grief: he informs her, with extensive biographical detail, of all of the sorrows and losses of her life, from the loss of her mother in childbirth to the deaths of her grandchildren and her husband, and then urges her to conquer this new grief as she has conquered others in the past — with patience and reason, neither distracting herself with trivialities or spending her time moaning and weeping over something that cannot be changed. The final essay, in the form of a exchange between Seneca and his friend Serenus, presents the latter as a ‘patient’ seeking a remedy for the frequent distractions of life that trouble his thoughts. Seneca, in keeping with Stoic philosophy, prescribes moderation in all things as physic for an unquiet mind, and cautions his friend that he will have to actively choose that path of moderation, and not be dissuaded from it by the course of events, whether good or ill. In all three selections, Seneca displays the characteristics beliefs of his chosen philosophy: the embrace of reason and harmony with nature, an acceptance of suffering in life and an attempt to learn from those sufferings, and the importance of finding peace within oneself both in life and in death.

On the Shortness of Life is a fine introduction to Seneca’s writings, translated in a very readable style by classical scholar C.D.N. Costa. The only real flaw in this edition is that the texts presented, however straightforward and enjoyable to read in their own right, tend to lack context without even a brief introduction. A simple one- or two-page preface to introduce Seneca as a historical and literary figure and possibly even provide some background information on the three texts included in the book would have greatly improved the edition as a whole. Even so, this first volume is a decent start to the Great Ideas series, and may best be read in conjunction with the later Stoic Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.


The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

27 July 2008

I wrote this review quite a while ago, and wasn’t entirely satisfied with the organisational structure of my first attempt. I think I like this version a bit better — it seems slightly clearer than my initial review — but I may end up revisiting it later on to make a few more tweaks to it.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

German political economist Max Weber wrote extensively on what sociologists today would consider the ‘sociology of religion’, specifically regarding the effects of religious beliefs on social structures and the economic activities that developed in different societies. His best-known work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, coined the phrase ‘Protestant work ethic’ to represent one particular connection he noticed between religion and economics and its effect on the historical development and evolution of capitalism.

Simply put, Weber suggests that some Protestant denominations, specifically those of the Calvinist or ‘Puritan’ school of thought, came to view economic success as an outward sign of an individual’s chances of salvation. Those who worked hard, saved much, spent little, and prospered financially seemed to be marked (to mortal eyes) as God’s chosen, and their example fed back into the religious teachings of their communities and continued the same interconnected cycle of religion and economics. These teachings, Weber theorises, contributed to the growth and development of capitalism in the economies of European countries like the United Kingdom and Germany, as well as in the American colonies — specifically, those of New England and the mid-Atlantic regions — where the more Puritan types of Protestant settlers made their homes. Weber also suggests that the religious basis of this school of thought and action gradually faded and blurred over time (as in Benjamin Franklin’s sayings, which emphasise thrift and hard work with less overt emphasis on the spiritual reasons for these practices), leaving behind only the more secular side of the drive towards personal financial prosperity.

Nonetheless, Weber takes care to state that this ethic was not the only factor in the development of the new economic order, nor still was it the most important factor. But he views the Reformation and the Protestant religion as one very specific influence on the modern system of political economics. As both a work of economic history (from one of the last political economists to emerge from the traditions of the German Historical School of economics) and a work on the sociology of religion (from one of the founders of this particular discipline), it is hardly surprisingly that historians, economists, sociologists, and religion students have all been able to find something of value in The Protestant Ethic over the year.

The edition I read was Talcott Parsons’ translation of The Protestant Ethic, which I found to be a very good English-language edition. At times, I almost appreciated his clear and concise footnotes (and the explanations they provided) more than the actual text of the book. My edition also has a superb introduction by Anthony Giddens, which goes into very interesting detail about the writing process that went into the creation of The Protestant Ethic and its relation to Weber’s other works on the sociology of religion. Since the notion of a ‘Protestant work-ethic’ has long since passed into common parlance, to the point where most people who use it would have a difficult time explaining what they actually mean by it, it’s certainly interesting to look at the work that coined the phrase and see precisely what the author originally intended by the concept.


The Portable Edmund Burke, edited by Isaac Kramnick

8 July 2008

Finally had a chance to finish this review, which was sitting in my files for longer than I’d liked. Finishing my review of Simon Jenkins’ Thatcher and Sons is next on my list, though I may have an older review available to slip in for Sunday.

The Portable Edmund Burke, edited by Isaac Kramnick

In the late 1700s, the British House of Commons contained a number of notable politicians whose friendships, rivalries, and ongoing intrigues might not seem out of place in today’s newspaper columns and political talk shows. The modern forms of today’s political party systems were still in their infancy, but their origins can be seen in the accounts of arch-rivals Charles James Fox and William Pitt the Younger facing each other across the floor of the Commons, as their respective groups of followers mobilised into constantly shifting tendencies and factions. One of the great ‘political personalities’ of the era was an Anglo-Irish MP named Edmund Burke, who had begun his political career as a private secretary of the second Marquess of Rockingham (one of several men who served very brief terms as Prime Minister in the 1760s and 1780s) but who soon developed a name for himself in the Commons for his oratorical style and his strong stances on several controversial issues of the day. The historian Edward Gibbon once described Burke as ‘the most eloquent and rational madman that I ever knew’, and Gibbon was certainly not alone in admiring Burke’s eloquence while simultaneously regarding many of the man’s opinions as rather beyond the pale.

In his time as an MP and a statesman, Burke was a defender of the rights of the Catholic minority in the United Kingdom, a critic of the harsh practices of slavery in Britain’s West Indian colonies, and a supporter of the grievances of the American colonists against the British crown. He also denounced the conduct of the British East India Company and its corrupt administration of the terrorities it had conquered on the Indian subcontinent. In the mid-1750s, he even wrote the essay A Vindication of Natural Society, a rationalist critique of Britain’s traditional social order that he would later claim was a piece of political satire, not meant to be taken as an indication of his personal beliefs. (This claim has since been disputed, though it works well enough as satire.) Yet in modern times, Burke is perhaps best known for his Reflections on the Revolution in France, a polemical letter-essay written in November 1790 which condemned the events and philosophical underpinning of the French Revolution in no uncertain terms. His fierce opposition to the French Revolution made him highly unpopular with many of his friends and political allies, most of whom found it surprising that he would support the tenets of American Revolution but denounce the revolution that followed in France. Later commentators, however, would identify Burke’s Reflections as one of the fundamental documents that laid out the philosophical basis of modern conservative thought — its emphasis on the guidance of tradition and the existing social order as opposed to outright revolutionary change provided a basic underpinning of the various schools of conservatism that would develop in the years to come.

Isaac Kramnick, editor of The Portable Enlightenment Reader, has developed this volume of the Viking Portable Library to include a representative selection of Burke’s writings, illustrating Burke’s thoughts on social and political topics ranging from the abuses of British colonial power in India and the Americas to the radical philosophies of writers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the proper conduct expected of members of Parliament and the aristocratic leaders of Great Britain. Kramnick’s introductory essay to this volume is an exceedingly good addition to Burke’s writings, primarily because it looks at how different historical schools of thought have regarded Burke and his philosophies in the centuries that have passed since his death. (In essence, American historians are more likely that their English counterparts to look favourably on Burke’s philosophical contributions, in large part because of the influence of Sir Lewis Namier’s re-evaluation of the history of Parliament in George III’s era.) For those who only know of Edmund Burke through his Reflections, or through the reactions of writers like Mary Wollstonecraft or Thomas Paine who regarded Burke as worse than reactionary, The Portable Edmund Burke is a fine, compact means of looking at the expanse of the man’s writings and evaluating them on their own terms.


A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

6 July 2008

As I was putting the finishing touches on my review of The Portable Edmund Burke, I realised that I’d neglected to post this review, which I’d written several months ago. All the more reason to slip this review in first.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

When Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759, to a fairly prosperous family in what is now Spitalfields in London, she seemed to have a life of comfort and good fortune awaiting her. Yet her father’s tendency towards speculation and wasteful spending soon destroyed the greater part of the family income, and by the time Wollstonecraft reached adulthood she was faced with the plight of untold other young women of her age and social standing: she had too little money to marry well but few useful skills to support herself financially. She worked as a governess and tried to run a school for girls, then finally took a very great risk in attempting to earn a living through her writing alone. Having travelled to France to see the changes being wrought by the Revolution, she channeled much of her frustration at the conditions she saw in England into her writings. Hard on the heels of her A Vindication of the Rights of Men (written as a scathing response to Edmund Burke’s conservative Reflections on the Revolution in France) came her best-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which Wollstonecraft addresses many of the concerns she had with the treatment of women and their education — or more specifically, the lack thereof.

Wollstonecraft makes several basic points in the book, most of which centre on the nature of women’s intelligence and a girl’s ability to be educated in the same manner as a boy would be. She roundly condemns writers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau who insisted that boys and girls could not and should not be educated on equal terms. It is this attitude, she claims, that is responsible for so much of the vice, ignorance, and lascivious behaviour she dislikes in both men and women. As long as women are taught that their only use in life is to be sweet, charming, and pleasing to men, they will of course go to any lengths to keep a man’s affections and attentions…even to the detriment of their children’s welfare, their family’s good name, and their own moral standards. Uneducated women teach their daughters to be flirts and courtesans, not good and rational mothers and wives. The sons of uneducated women learn that a woman is only worth something when she is young and pretty, tacitly condoning extra-marital affairs. An educated woman, on the other hand, will be more capable of caring for her children — she will be less involved in constantly trying to keep her husband’s affections, for one thing — and will likely provide her sons and daughters with the proper example to follow as they grow up to become moral citizens and rational human beings:

Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers — in a word, better citizens.

Education as the backbone of moral fibre is a point she stresses over and over again, and insists that any of the arguments about women being created mentally inferior to men cannot be true. No good and gentle Creator, she claims, would be cruel enough to create a being who was allowed neither the brute instinct given to animals nor the free will and reason given to men. Even if the writing of the Vindication feels more than a little repetitive at times, Wollstonecraft’s message comes across plainly and passionately, as much a part of the works of the revolutionary Enlightenment writers as anything written by…well, a man.

The second work included in the book are the sections of Wollstonecraft’s unfinished novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman. The ‘wrongs’ mentioned in the title include both the wrongs done to women and the wrongs done by women — the central point of the plot involves the grim fate of a woman named Maria, who has been declared insane and locked up a private asylum at the whim of her debauched, spendthrift husband. While in the asylum, Maria befriends one of the female ‘nurses’, a girl named Jemima, who has likewise suffered greatly in the course of her married life. Wollstonecraft draws parallels across class boundaries in a manner that was quite radical for her day, pointing out the unsatisfactory condition shared by poor and well-to-do women alike. While the fragments of the novel are clearly sketchy and unpolished, there is enough available to give the reader an idea of what the story might have been like — though it is difficult to tell whether Wollstonecraft intended the tale to have a tragic ending (like that of her first novel, Mary) or a more romantic ending where the heroine manages to overcome her condition.

The edition that I have (the Longman Cultural Edition) contains a selection of articles and other writings related to Wollstonecraft’s work, ranging from contemporary reviews of the Vindication to longer sections from works that Wollstonecraft cited or referred to in the text itself. The articles and snippets help to place the writings within their era, complete with annotations and explanations designed to clarify quotations or references that contemporary readers might not immediately know. If I had the opportunity to select from a few different editions of Wollstonecraft’s work, I think I would have preferred an edition which included only the Vindication and its related articles — the unfinished novel seemed (to me) overly melodramatic and maudlin when compared to the firey feel of the polemic. Even so, the Vindication is required reading for anyone interested in early feminist writings and the work of Enlightenment authors, no matter what edition it happens to be in.


Orwell and Politics (edited by Peter Davison)

17 June 2008

The fourth and final review of the Penguin Press editions of selected writings by George Orwell, following on from Orwell in Spain, Orwell and the Dispossessed, and Orwell’s England.

(On a fun note, a friend of mine sent me a link to Kate Beaton‘s marvellous comic strip about George Orwell, which I simply have to share.)

Orwell and Politics (edited by Peter Davison)

The main text in Orwell and Politics is Animal Farm — not 1984, which is what one might expect as the text of choice for a book that focuses primarily on Orwell’s political writings. Either book works, in whatever context, and the choice to look at Animal Farm allowed editor Peter Davison to bring in some letters that deserve to be reprinted in connection with the text. But both books were written relatively late in Orwell’s life, not many years before his death. The bulk of his other political writings deserve just as much attention, if for no other reason than the fact that the essays, review articles, and letters contained in this volume illustrate the formation and development of the ideas that eventually found their expression in his two best-known novels.

Several of the selections in this book explore incidents from Orwell’s time in Burma, serving as a member of the police force that kept colonial rule firmly in place in this outpost of the British Empire. Orwell’s experiences in Burma provided a strong foundation for his interest in socialism and eventually found their way into print in his book Burmese Days. Orwell and Politics also contains the second and third parts of ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ — the first part of which was reprinted in Orwell’s England — which look at how a uniquely ‘English Socialism’ might form a socialist identity free of the ideological weight of Soviet-dictated communism. (Rather interesting that the ‘Ingsoc’ of 1984 would have its roots in a perversion of this idea.) ‘Why I Write’ and ‘Politics and the English Language’, two of Orwell’s finest essays on the uses and abuses of language and political writing, are a notable part of this volume. Several other articles included come from Orwell’s regular column in the left-leaning Tribune newspaper. A number of letters to friends and colleagues round out the book.

One final thing deserves to be mentioned. Towards the end of Orwell and Politics is a particularly fascinating little fragment of writing, penned in May 1949 when Orwell was lying ill with tuberculosis. On it were the names of three dozen writers and artists who he considered to be ‘crypto-communists’ or ‘fellow travellers’, and therefore unsuitable for any work having to do with the creation of anticommunist propaganda. Orwell had written the list for his friend Celia Kirwan, who worked at the Foreign Office — it is now available at the National Archives at Kew in file FO 1110/189. (This New York Review of Books article by Timothy Garton Ash provides more information on the list itself and the circumstances surrounding its creation.) The little snip of information provides a fitting conclusion to Orwell and Politics, a glimpse of one man’s attempt to practise the beliefs he wrote about with such passion and consideration.