Some recently purchased books and a model Ferrari. Giving me a Ferrari was one of three ways students could get an A when I taught.
Sunday, October 16, 2011


The photo shows some books that I bought recently. The red car is a model Ferrari. Back when I was teaching at Catholic University I told my students, There are three ways to get a good grade: put a Ferrari in my driveway; get me a date with Madonna; write a good paper.

A lady asked me why I read. Do I read to expand my horizons or for ammunition against my perceived enemies. Now an analysis of that question could be pretty interesting, because it posits that she sees me as paranoid. My having “perceived enemies” implies that they exist only in my perception, and not in reality. And the bit about expanding my horizons, well that apparently means that I should read books that she approves of, and that have her stamp of approval as appropriately horizon expanding.

This same lady, upon being urged to read some Aquinas, responded by sending me this quote from Bertrand Russell:

“There is little of the true philosophic spirit in Aquinas. He does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an inquiry, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading. I cannot, therefore, feel that he deserves to be put on a level with the best philosophers either of Greece or of modern times.”

Now Bertrand Russell, in collaboration with Alfred North Whitehead, wrote an impenetrable book on the foundations of mathematics and set theory, Principia Mathematica, which takes 200 pages or so to prove that 1+1=2, so I guess he has some qualification as a philosopher. How does Russell define the spirit of philosophy, true or otherwise? Does Russel give any evidence of having done more than glanced at the Summa Theologiae? Aquinas wrote another Summa, the Summa Contra Gentiles, which is also a thick, multi-volume work, as well as commentaries on Aristotle. Not all of his work, from the snippets outside of ST that I’ve seen have the question and answer format of that work. Considering the condemnations of 1277, it’s pretty evident that not all of Thomas’ arguments were viewed as congruent with the Catholic faith. Aside from all of that there’s also a rather prickly question regarding the Platonic dialogues. Russell apparently regards these as somehow leading in unexpected directions, but doesn’t that assume that we’re somehow listening in on conversations that have been recorded, rather than dramas that have been written and stage managed? The Platonic dialogues are not conversations, but scripted, and written, and have a definite structure. So Plato directs the dialogues to go the way he wants.

So my onetime friend uses Bertie as an excuse not to expand her horizons by reading Aquinas. Isn’t that rather, shall we say, intellectually incurious? Doesn’t a major Western philosopher deserve more than to have his work dismissed by opinions that someone has adopted at second-hand?

I will admit that I don’t spend a lot of time reading liberal columnists. For example, I don’t read Froma Harrop. One reason is that she reminds me of my Persian cat, Christabel. She would make a sound like froooma harrruupp right before expectorating an enormous bile covered blob of a hairball. Others, like Paul Krugman or Maureen Dowd, I long ago determined were simply not worth reading.

So how do I read, and what do I read?

I have, barring accidents, somewhere between 10 to 20 years left to me, and I’m 66, so I don’t care to waste my time by reading a lot of tripe that I have already determined is wrong. So I don’t read most of the NY Times or the Washington Post. I look at the NY Times for DVD reviews because it will have notices about the kinds of movies that I like, such as foreign movies, or classic Hollywood movies. Lately I’ve become fond of the Wall Street Journal on the weekend, which I find has better coverage of art and books than the WaPo. I read computer magazines, mostly the Mac magazines. When Borders was in business I bought some jazz and classical music magazines, largely for the free CDs so that I could expand my musical horizons. Upon moving to Spotsylvania I became interested in the Civil War. (I sometimes refer to it as The War of Northern Aggression when I want to annoy Northerners or liberals.) Before moving here I was interested in World War II, and I still read a fair amount about that war. If I were a true historian, I suppose I would read The Goebbels Diaries, or Mein Kampf, but I don’t and I won’t. On the other hand, I have read Trotsky, who was not exactly an innocent when it comes to mass killing. When I was in high school I went through a phase where I was interested in Hinduism and Buddhism, and I have books of Indian, Japanese, and Chinese literature. I started reading translations of Greek and Latin literature when I was pretty young, and I pretty much fell in love with Shaw when I was in my teens. Like many love affairs, particularly where the other party can’t or won’t reciprocate, the passion has pretty much faded. I read a lot of boys’ science fiction and detective stories when I was growing up. Rick Brant, Tom Corbett, and Tom Swift Jr. in SF, and the Hardy Boys in the detective genre. So I still have a taste for both genres. I prefer the hard military SF, so I look for books in that genre. When it comes to high literature, including philosophy, and other high flown subjects, I concentrate largely on European lit. When I was young I was passionately fond of Blake, Byron, and Shelley. Wordsworth I didn’t much care for, and when I read The Prelude, I found it soporific. Coleridge I didn’t read much of. Dickens I find sentimental, but I’ll probably wind up buying most of his works eventually, Whoever I pass my books onto might like him more than I do. I’ve read a fair amount of French literature, but not systematically, and I sort of draw the line at the death of Sartre (1980). Outside of Nietzsche, and bits of Schopenhauer, I find most German philosophy either incomprehensible (Kant and Hegel), or boring (Marx). On the other hand I rather like Freud, but not Jung, and I like Kafka. So I read English, French, German, and Italian literature. I prefer romantic era literature to neo-classic (Pope, Dryden), and detest Milton, and Puritan writers generally. So that’s pretty much what I read: Greek and Latin classics, European lit, sci-fi (and some fantasy), history, and some Asian lit.

Why I read. I read either for information, as when I read books about programming, or for pleasure. As I’ve said I figure that I’ve got about 10 to 20 years left, so I want to read things that I haven’t read before that will give me pleasure. Now that pleasure can be educational, as when I read Tacitus or Xenophon for the first time, or it can be purely pleasurable, as when I read a satisfying sci-fi novel or detective story. So that’s why I read. As to broadening my horizons, well, I just finished reading Kalidasa’s Sakuntala, and the part of the Mahabharata known as the Sauptikaparvan, both classics of Indian literature, so I think that’s pretty broadening.

Prior to reading the Indian books I finished Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, and he had some thoughts on reading, and the habit of reading that I’d like to share. 

The flesh of animals who feed excursively, is allowed to have a higher flavour than that of those who are cooped up. May there not be the same difference between men who read as their taste prompts and men who are confined in cells and colleges to stated tasks?

“A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good. A young man should read five hours in a day, and so may acquire a great deal of knowledge.

“Dr. Johnson advised me to-day, to have as many books about me as I could; that I might read upon any subject upon which I had a desire for instruction at the time. 'What you read then (said he) you will remember; but if you have not a book immediately ready, and the subject moulds in your mind, it is a chance if you again have a desire to study it.' He added, 'If a man never has an eager desire for instruction, he should prescribe a task for himself. But it is better when a man reads from immediate inclination.

“He said, that for general improvement, a man should read whatever his immediate inclination prompts him to; though, to be sure, if a man has a science to learn, he must regularly and resolutely advance. He added, 'what we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.'[1] He told us, he read Fielding's Amelia through without stopping.[2] He said, 'if a man begins to read in the middle of a book, and feels an inclination to go on, let him not quit it, to go to the beginning. He may perhaps not feel again the inclination.'

“'Snatches of reading (said he) will not make a Bentley or a Clarke. They are, however, in a certain degree advantageous. I would put a child into a library (where no unfit books are) and let him read at his choice. A child should not be discouraged from reading any thing that he takes a liking to, from a notion that it is above his reach. If that be the case, the child will soon find it out and desist; if not, he of course gains the instruction; which is so much the more likely to come, from the inclination with which he takes up the study'” 

We now return you to our regularly scheduled rant.