Wednesday, May 31, 2017

In Defense of History by Richard J. Evans

It’s not often that I read a book that’s written by a character in a movie, but I did so when I read Sir Richard Evans’s In Defense of History (1998). Sir Richard, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, is no swashbuckling character.  He was portrayed the movie Denial (my review) about the libel trial of Irving v. Lipstadt in which he served as an expert witness for Lipstadt as she proved the truth of the Holocaust against the falsehood of Irving’s denialism. Evans is an expert on modern German history, and he wrote a three-volume history of the Third Reich. But in this book, he’s not writing history; he’s writing about history.

The lineage of this undertaking is a long and venerable one. Evans notes predecessors like E.H. Carr (What is History?) and Sir Geoffrey Elton, among others, and he mentions Collingwood only in passing and not in a flattering way. But Evans’s primary project in this book isn’t to argue with his well-known predecessors, but with his contemporizes, especially those who fly the flag of postmodernism. But in doing so, Evans isn’t out to pull them down so much as to pull them back. Evans, like other critics of postmodernism (Ken Wilber pops to mind), do not argue that they’re all wrong, but that they take some fundamental insights and run them to an extreme that collapses under the weight of logic. Postmodernism and relativism (of which postmodernism is the current incarnation) collapse in a performative contradiction when it’s insights are pushed to their logical conclusions. But Evans is not acting like an old curmudgeon here. In fact, he welcomes many of the insights provided by postmodernism and other innovative approaches to history, including its subject-matter, its way of investigating and knowing the past, and how history is written.


I’ll keep my review short, as many on Goodreads have shared the same insights. But before closing, this book deserves a place alongside the works of E.H. Carr and Sir Geoffrey Elton, and yes, even R.G. Collingwood, Evans’s ill-considered dis notwithstanding. It’s a thorough and persuasive appraisal of the historical profession and what it can hope to achieve, and it’s an excellent guide to (relatively) contemporary thinking about history. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

Fateful Choices: Ten Decision That Changed the World 1940-1941 by Ian Kershaw

Ian Kershaw’s Fateful Choices: Ten Decision That Changed the World 1940-1941 is an outstanding history of a time of immensely influential but not necessarily obvious decisions made by dictatorships and democracies. There are many dangers in the study and writing of history, such as navigating the risk of hindsight bias—of course, someone acted in such and such a way because of this and that reason compelled the decision. We better understand the reasons and compulsions that affected the decision-makers because we know how the decisions turned out and we can know the simultaneous acts of others that affect the outcome. On the other hand, when titanic forces are on the move, the importance—even the reality—of individual decisions can become mere chimeras in comparison to the great impersonal forces that shape the course of events. Kershaw’s book shows how historians can understand and appreciate the decisions of actors in the face of profound change and uncertainty. Individual decisions do make a difference, although all human decisions are constrained. The constraints may arise from within the individual, such as his [sic] values, goals, and beliefs (true and false); from the effects of other actors in a strategic game; or from the effects of Nature’s whims. The historian—and I think I’m following Collingwood here, as I believe Kershaw implicitly does—must “re-enact” (Collingwood’s term) the thoughts (and perceptions) of the actors as they sought to act in their worlds. Of course, such as undertaking of “re-enactment” is at best partial and incomplete. Any representation of reality, no matter how concurrent it may be, must always result in “reality-lite” in any re-telling. Yet, despite the limitations, some efforts are more successful, more edifying, that others and Kershaw’s work fits this description.

The ten decisions that Kershaw addresses were momentous and did change the course of history (if we can say that history has a course; perhaps we should say that it unfolds willy-nilly like the weather—somewhat predictable only in the shortest run). For instance, Kershaw opens with the decision of the British cabinet to continue the war against Hitler even as France is falling. Here, of course, we see the importance of a single individual, Winston Churchill, who has only just assumed the post of Prime Minister. Under the lead of Lord Halifax, the British contemplated cutting a deal with Hitler that some hoped would preserve the Empire and guaranty of freedom of the seas for them. Indeed, Hitler hoped that Britain would take just such a course. In this account—also brilliantly relayed in John Lukacs’s Five Days in London: May 1940—Kershaw reveals the uncertainty, yet underlying value, of the reasoned arguments required by the British parliamentary democracy. In contrast, for instance, consider another decision that Kershaw recounts: that of Stalin to ignore the numerous sources that warned him of Hitler’s impending attack. Stalin’s refusal to act on the warnings he received allowed the Soviet Union to come perilously close to falling in the face German onslaught. (The fascinating question is what combination of wishful thinking, outright denial, or strategic miscalculation (Stalin thought Hitler wouldn’t dare open a second front with the British fighting on) took place in Stalin’s mind, but Kershaw is not, nor is any historian, a mind-reader.)

Kershaw also includes chapters on the Japanese decision to attack Pearl Harbor and engage the U.S. in a war in the Pacific; Mussolini’s reckless and ill-fated decision to enter actively into the war; and the evolution of the Final Solution from the circumstances of the conquest of Eastern Europe with its huge Jewish population. For Americans, Kershaw details Roosevelt’s decisions to come—slowly, hesitantly—to Britain’s aid, and then his eventual decision to risk war in the North Atlantic by engaging German U-boats. In another chapter, Hitler, a couple of days after Pearl Harbor, declares war on the U.S., relieving Roosevelt from the need to make a case for a war in both Europe and the Pacific. Kershaw details the rationality of this decision that might, at first glance, seem quite irrational.


Whether one is a student of WWII history (as I am) or just an occasional history reader, this is a first-class work of history that will entertain (well, if you like narratives of political decisions) and instruct. We all see through a glass darkly, but some put on darker glasses than others. Kershaw helps us see more clearly. 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I've done it. I think I've surpassed my record. It was a long haul, but I'm glad I did it.

I finished the audio book of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (Constance Garnett translation).  In doing so, I believe that I broke my previous audiobook record for length by having listened to all of Moby Dick by audio. By the way, the duration of the reading clocks in at just over 34 hours. (My secret was listening to it as I commuted to work, which varied from 25 to about 40 minutes each way.)

I'd only read some short pieces and Notes from Underground by Dostoyevsky before undertaking this his last--and perhaps greatest--novel. But I did not go into without some preconceptions, which I found reinforced early in my listening. My first source of preconceptions:



Yes, there is a great deal of this (and other parts of Woody Allen's Love and Death--a favorite of ours) in this book. At some point early on, I did ask myself whether Katerina Ivanova and Grushenka were worth all of the fuss and the sometimes melodramatic dialogue. But in the end, it proves worthwhile, although it can try the patience in portions.

The other preconception comes from having read and then watched this story within the story of The Brothers Karamazov: the story of "The Grand Inquisitor." Below is a dramatization of it performed by the incomparable John Gielgud, whose sonorous voice is a joy to experience as he lays out this fundamental and chilling insight.



I won't go deeper into the novel here. It's a long and complex story, which includes, I might add, a trial section that's quite worthwhile.

The reader in this version is the late Frederick Davidson, a Brit who performed all of the characters with British accents, for instance, assigning peasants cockney accents. In the beginning, I found this quite annoying. To me, I was already listening to a foreign accent, so why not a Slavic English accent? If I were to choose again, I would have made this switch, but it didn't matter so much in the end.

This is a great book.


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

An Open Letter to Senators Grassley & Ernst to Urge Appointment of a Special Prosecutor













10 May 2017

Hon. Charles Grassley, U.S. Senate, Iowa
Hon. Joni Ernst, U.S. Senate, Iowa

Dear Senators:

I want to join your Republican colleagues Senators McCain and Burr who are calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the issue of whether the Trump campaign and administration has had any illegal or compromising contacts with Russian interests. I know that the Senate has a committee investigating these matters chaired by Senator Burr, but with the firing of FBI Director Comey, I have no faith that any successor will have the credibility to fully and fairly pursue this vital investigation.

Senator Grassley, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of the longest-serving senators, I call on you, in particular, to speak out openly and directly on this issue. The White House should hear from you in no uncertain terms that the appointment of a special prosecutor is necessary to making sure that these matters are fairly and completely resolved. I trust that you share my deep concern for the integrity of our legal system. I've been an Iowa lawyer even longer than you've been a U.S. senator, and I shudder to see the compromise of our constitutional system and a weakening of the faith of the people in that system that the Comey firing creates. This wound to the justice and national security systems is a grave threat to our Republic. I urge you to act and become a leader of this cause.

Senator Ernst, there's no time like the present to stand up for the indispensable American value of the rule of law. Leadership goes to those who display it, not those who play it safe to please party or to pander to some voters.

Senators, we look to you to stand up for our values.

Thank you for your consideration.


Stephen N. Greenleaf


Monday, May 1, 2017

Revolutionaries of the Soul: Reflections on Magicians, Philosophers, and Occultists by Gary Lachman

A collection of biographical essays
Gary Lachman’s collection of biographical essays, Revolutionaries of the Soul: Reflections on Magicians, Philosophers, and Occultists (2014) gathers together short pieces that he’s written over the course of 20 years of as a professional writer in the field of (for lack of a better term) “alternative thinking.” One might wonder about the connecting thread between the subjects of these essays (and Lachman’s project as a whole), but if you have any doubt, he provides an enlightening self-description in his introduction:

What the reader of this collection, and perhaps of my other books, will discover is that I am in love and obsessed with ideas. I like to think. It is, admittedly, an occupation not as popular as in some earlier times and one that requires the increasingly elusive necessities of peace and quiet, along with the more accessible ingredients of a book, notebook, table, and pen, or, more frequently today, laptop. . .. Thinkers are rather like those people at the head of a jungle expedition, hacking into a thick tangle of roots and vines in order to make a path. It is demanding, unpleasant work, but it needs to be done, and it must be admitted that the people further back on the trail have a relatively easier time of it.

Lachman, Gary. Revolutionaries of the Soul: Reflections on Magicians, Philosophers, and Occultists (Kindle Locations 111-119). Quest Books. Kindle Edition.


Lachman, following the example of his friend and mentor, Colin Wilson (the subject of the first essay in the collection), excels at capturing and relaying the ideas and stories of the varied cast represented here. After introducing us to Wilson’s thought (or at least a slice of it, for Wilson was a prolific writer), Lachman takes us back in time to look at the work of Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg, as I read about him here, reminded me of other multi-talented geniuses of the early modern era, like Leibniz and Newton, to name two the most famous of that era’s genius polymaths. (Although Swedenborg, so far as I know, had no hand in inventing the calculus.) And Newton’s interest in alchemy notwithstanding, Swedenborg had a unique talent: he saw complex visions of heaven and hell. Regardless of what one thinks about the ontological basis of these visions (more on this topic later), his visions and ideas had some far-reaching influence. Included among those affected by his works were Blake, Emerson, and the father of William and Henry James.

Another scientist-turned visionary discussed by Lachman is Rudolf Steiner. To the extent Steiner is known today, it’s probably as the founder of Steiner (a/k/a Waldorf) schools. But before becoming a visionary of other worlds and realms, as well as a practical purveyor of ideas about philosophy, education, and agriculture, Steiner was a biologist and a Goethe scholar. As with Swedenborg, I find the combination of a high degree of scientific training and practice an intriguing and puzzling contrast—or compliment? —to their etheric visions. The same could be said of Carl Jung, another subject here, who was a trained physician as well as one exposed to the occult (spirit world) at a young age and who tried to understand humanity through depth psychology. But he seems to have kept hidden a predilection for the occult for most of his career that affected his beliefs and judgments.

A wide array of figures included here are those who delved into occult visions and magic. From little-known figures (to me anyway) to rather famous ones like Madame Blavatsky and Manly Palmer Hall (American), this group can be seen as a whole to have mined past traditions (e.g., Ancient Egypt, and the “mysterious East”) to shape into ideas and practices that reach far outside everyday reality. Hidden “masters,” incantations, fantastic visions, and ancient doctrines and practices mark this group. Taken as a whole, this group provides the most colorful life stories, some appearing as charlatans and at other times having been duped by charlatans. But in other contexts, they are (literally) revolutionaries (Madame B for example). But whether we consider them simply as a rogue’s gallery or as perhaps a combination of extraordinary talents blessed with a sense of showmanship, many of them were quite personally adventuresome and amazing in the experiences. Whatever we may think of their work as passed down to posterity (all of these figures published works), they provide fascinating lives and works upon which to reflect further. (Lachman has published biographies of several of the individuals that I look forward to reading.)

The last group to cover is one that I label the “philosophers.” None of them are mainstream, but their claims to notoriety come from the ideas that they left us much more than any claim to personal powers or special insights. In this group, I’d include Ouspensky, Julius Evola, Jean Gebser, and Owen Barfield. Evola, dubbed “Mussolini’s Mystic” by Lachman for the chapter devoted to him, is of topical interest now because Steve Bannon, President Trump’s aide, has professed adherence to Evola’s work. It’s worth noting some Italian terrorists in the 1980’s as well as some of Mussolini’s supporters were also admirers. While I reject Evola’s praise of violence (which comes across like that of George Sorel and Frantz Fanon), some have suggested (including Lachman), that Evola nevertheless expresses a serious critique of Modernity. (And Modernity is either the key to our freedom or a hell that we’ve created for ourselves; I’m not sure which—or perhaps both.)  The Russian √©migr√© Ouspensky had many original and challenging ideas published before becoming a student and then master of Gurdjieff’s “Third Way.” Jean Gebser is another fascinating figure with his theory the evolution of consciousness. His work has influenced the likes of William Irwin Thompson, Ken Wilber, and Georg Feuerstein. I’m one of those persons that Lachman refers to that have heard of Gebser but who’ve not plunged into his original work. Reading Lachman’s account reminds me (again) that Gebser's work should be on my list.

The final figure I’ll discuss here is my personal favorite, Owen Barfield. Compared to almost all of the other figures discussed in this book, Barfield’s life might seem the drabbest and his ideas the least spectacular—and perhaps that’s why he’s my favorite among all of these figures. Like me, Barfield was a practicing lawyer most of his adult life, albeit a reluctant one, having been called into the family business by necessity rather than desire. But Barfield’s life, while outwardly prosaic, still was one of extraordinary experiences. After serving in The Great War (WWI), Barfield attended Oxford, where he met C.S. “Jack” Lewis. Lewis credits Barfield for his conversion to Christianity. Through Lewis, Barfield met others at Oxford that would become “The Inklings,” a group that included Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and others. Barfield wrote two books, Poetic Diction and History in English Words before taking up his legal career, and he was a disciple of Steiner’s Anthroposophy from an early age. After about a 30-year hiatus, Barfield returned to full-time writing and thinking with the publication of his Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (1957) and later works. Barfield’s ideas about “original participation” and “final participation” have influenced historian John Lukacs and sparked the admiration of writers such as Saul Bellow, James Hillman, and Harold Bloom, to name but three. It is in this essay that Lachman engages most in his love of ideas and their power.

When we come to the end of this work we are in a better position to reflect upon what Lachman wrote in his introduction about the two predominate themes of his writing career:

One is human consciousness and its evolution, both in the individual and in the culture at large. Another is that mysterious world that seems to strangely parallel our familiar, everyday one, the world of the occult, the magical, the esoteric. As you might suspect, these two themes overlap and are intimately related.

Id. (Kindle Locations 122-124)

The first of his themes is one that I wholeheartedly share. How we have changed as a species and how we change in a lifetime are the two great issues we face in our individual lives and in our collective life as a species. Everything that you and I do is to change our consciousness—from answering a hunger pang with a bite to eat to sleeping to talking to someone—it’s all about changing our state of our consciousness. But over a longer term, it’s about changing what we know explicitly and implicitly—rationally and verbally, intuitively and imaginatively. We all have at some time experienced a metanoia, a change of our heart-mind, as the term is used in the New Testament. My individual path was first laid down through Christianity (Catholic practice and Protestant insights), but then supplemented and surpassed by Buddhism, ancient Western philosophy “as a way of life” (Pierre Hadot), and a variety other sources of wisdom from China and India as well as from more recent thinkers. And how this all plays out collectively is as well as individually is, to me, a fascinating and vital subject.

But I must say that the occult and magic leave me flat. My amalgamation of sources that I listed above tend toward what some might see as the quotidian and cautious, the mainstream. Despite hours of meditation, prayer, and silence, as well as exposure t0 ideas quite beyond the ordinary, I’ve never experienced any bells or whistles. Now I’d be the first to admit that this might be the result of my tone-deafness to such frequencies and that training might make a difference. I’m skeptical and agnostic as to occult realities and practices. I see myself as following the Buddha in taking the position that I don’t have to know who made the arrow or by whom it was shot or from where is was shot in order to act to alleviate the suffering that it causes. I just need to remove the damned arrow.

The other attitude I have I attribute to William James (and thus I demonstrate my American bona fides). I want to know the “cash value” of all of these varieties of seeing and experiencing the world. Of all of these practices and beliefs, which ones have, can, and should change the world? None of these actors (and some of them are quite intriguing actors) can claim to have influenced the world in a significant, continuing way? There is no one here with the stature of Napoleon, Disraeli, Hitler or Stalin, or Roosevelt. No one the stature of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, or Russell. No one the stature of Gandhi, Niebuhr, or Marx. Of course, the deeper question is whether any of the figures considered by Lachman should have the level of influence comparable to the figures I listed above. And, in fairness, while no one of Lachman’s subjects alone had a large effect, as he notes in his Introduction, the occult and esoteric collectively have influenced our culture and the course of history. Even as I write this, a potent mix of politics and esoteric beliefs challenge the status quo.
The explorer-author


Thus, regardless of what skeptics like me might conclude about many of these figures, like human activity as a whole, they and the occult represent a part of who we are. The fact that we believe in all manner of things and act in all manner of ways is a part of why we take an interest in ourselves as a species, or more precisely, as a culture. These lives, these beliefs, whatever their reality (whatever that may mean or entail) is interesting nonetheless because of what it says about us. Is it simply that we humans are dumb and gullible? We have to go beyond that simplistic and unsatisfying conclusion to learn something deeper about ourselves. To this end, Gary Lachman provides us a great service by dedicating himself to exploring the boundaries of human consciousness and beliefs where most thinkers (especially academics) don’t dare go. It’s at the boundaries, the unexplored edges, that we learn something new. I know that I’ll keep following him there.