Review – Before The Dawn (#evolution, #genetics, #anthropology, #history, #books)

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

by Nicholas Wade, published 2006

Evolution and history are not two distinct processes, with one following another like the change between royal dynasties. Rather, evolution and history overlap, with the historical period being overlaid on a still continuing process of evolutionary change. (pg. 272)

Something I always used to wonder about when reading history was the recurring theme of barbarian invasions of “civilized” societies striking from the frontiers. Why were there separate civilized and barbarian populations? And where did all these barbarians keep coming from, given that the explanation invariably given for their invasion was that they themselves were being invaded/pressured by other barbarians on their frontier? (Was it barbarians all the way down?) I purchased Wade’s “Before the Dawn” to try to better understand the debate about “race” — which is one chapter of twelve in the book — and ended up with a much better understanding of this perennial personal historical quandary, the book having offered a framework for understanding early human history and migration patterns and the way evolution played the keyboard simultaneously.

The most descriptive word that comes to mind when I think of this book is “sweeping”, which is both its strength and its weakness. This is very much a strategic book examining large trends that took place over vast geographic expanses and long periods of time, rather than a tactical examination of the various microphenomena involved, although there’s some of that, too. Concerning itself with the evolutionary changes which led to the splitting of the human and chimpanzee genetic lines 5 million years ago, and then the ensuing genetic changes and speciation of the pre-modern human genetic lines between 5 million and 50,000 years ago and then finally sorting out the geographic expansion and social and likely genetic transformation of modern human beings from 50,000 years ago to the present, the author surveys key findings and scientific developments since Darwin’s writings that have helped to piece together the early history of humanity. And while it’s supposed to be an introduction written for the knowledgeable layman, Wade nonetheless covers so much ground, so many academic controversies, so many studies and theories and oddly-named regions and eras and behavioral developments — the world’s scientific community seems to have an unresolved dilemma when it comes to naming things — that it is sometimes hard to keep up and remain focused on the broad narrative of which these items are a part.

The book has 12 chapters, simply named, which serve as essential themes explored:

  1. Genetics & Genesis
  2. Metamorphosis
  3. First Words
  4. Eden
  5. Exodus
  6. Stasis
  7. Settlement
  8. Sociality
  9. Race
  10. Language
  11. History
  12. Evolution

It’s a testament to either the astounding volume of detail in this book, or the limits of my own cognitive abilities, or both, that having just finished this book last night after picking it up just over a week ago, I couldn’t reliably tell you which parts of the story fit in each section, so I won’t bother trying to summarize it all here. Instead, I thought I’d mention just a few pieces that I found especially interesting.

First, the “out of Africa” moment. I didn’t realize that this was not one moment, with one group of people. It happened many times with many different groups of people who, according to the historical record, went many different ways from there, some traveling around the coasts and then into the interior of Asia (and eventually outlying islands and over the land bridge to North America and South America), others migrating through Southern and Northern Europe. Wade argues that they were strong mariners due to the navigation and spread throughout the south Pacific archipelago, but why weren’t they navigating the coasts of North Africa and the Mediterranean and transiting out of Africa directly into Southern Europe? Meanwhile, numerous other pre-modern humans such as the Neanderthals (Europe) and Homo erectus (Asia) had already left Africa thousands of years before and fully populated the regions they were migrating into. But there was little discussion or exploration of how these other human species managed this, or why they might’ve been the firsts. Geologic history plays an important role here as well, and the multiple ice ages which occurred during these migration waves not only may have been drivers of evolutionary change which then led to social and migratory change, but they also dictated where various migrations could reasonably be achieved and increased the chance of tension and conflict between previous inhabitants and new arrivals in environs experiencing increased ecological scarcity.

Another important idea in the book, which for the present appears to be a hypothesis with a disputed body of evidence behind it, is that we might be able to peer deeper and more accurately into the historical record by means of the interplay between language and genetic diversification. The idea seems to be that every time a distinct genetic population splits off from an existing group, they tend to modify their language as well. Understanding where and how various language splits occurred might allow scientists to pinpoint new genetic branch timelines and vice versa, all the way back to the “original mother tongue” of the first “out of Africans”. One extremely speculative hope is that this original human language might even be reasonably reconstructed. Proto-Esperanto?

A third item I wanted to highlight isn’t interesting so much as it is entertaining, what I consider to be a bit of comical proledom. In a discussion of the relationship between last names and shared genealogy in Britain, Wade states,

Commoners acquired surnames between AD 1250 and 1350, apparently for the convenience of feudal record keepers who needed to differentiate between tenant farmers with the same first names. The surnames were not highly original. They tended to be a person’s profession (Smith, Butcher), or a patronymic (Johnson, Peterson), or derived from some landscape feature (Hill, Bush).

He goes on to give an example where it turned out that two Brits with the same last name, one a CEO and one an academic, actually did have a shared lineage originating to a common ancestor in a particular region of Northern England/Southern Scotland of whose geography the surname was descriptive, and who lived in that area according to official records. I got a chortle out of the way the elites of yore chose to humanize and differentiate amongst their tax cattle simply to aid their own tax farming, and that they didn’t bother to come up with anything more illustrious than tacking on terminology for slight changes in elevation on the land the peasants originated from, etc. It’s also interesting to think of how many people today have “commoner” last names (which group of ancestors, then, was reproductively more successful, the commoner or the elite?!) and how the market economy has allowed the sons of so many peasants to accumulate so much wealth!

A fourth item worth mentioning is the issue of “race”. It appears from this reading that “race” is a real and scientific phenomenon, though the implications of race are not well-know and are likely far different from what both “supporters” and “critics” of the concept currently think they can extrapolate from it. I’d like to learn more about race, and I think there will be more race-related scientific discoveries in the near future as this area of genetics is more thoroughly explored, but I would say I have less confidence in current race debates and their conclusions than I might have going into this book.

I’ll probably keep this one on the shelf and come back to some of the questions raised as I explore more books on the subject of genetics and evolution, pre-modern history, archaeology, economic history, etc. But I was less engaged with this book than I had hoped to be and I do hope there is a better organized, updated treatment of the subject I can read and discuss with my children in the future.

3/5

Review – Citizens (#history, #revolution, #aristocracy, #elites, #politics, #books)

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (buy on Amazon.com)

by Simon Schama, published 1990

An attempt at an analytical reading

I’ve been reading as many books as ever lately, but I haven’t had the time or the interest to review much of what I have read perhaps in part because my reading has felt rather “aimless”. It isn’t that I am reading a random assortment of books willy-nilly with no unifying logic to why I take them off the shelf, it is more about not having a particular purpose as I read, failing to annotate and highlight and thus make the book my own and therefore ending up with the feeling of “What did I take away from this?”

Luckily for me, I read a book several years ago called “How To Read A Book” and posted what I think was a rather excellent summary of its main ideas. I went back to this post a few days ago as I became acutely aware of my perception of my recent reading experiences and looked it over and in so doing gained resolve.

As I work through this review, I aim to discuss the following:

  1. Classification of the book according to kind and subject matter
  2. State the “unity” of the book with utmost brevity
  3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation
  4. Define the problem the author is trying to solve
  5. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with its most important sentences
  6. Know the author’s arguments by a sequence of sentences
  7. Determine which problems were solved and which were not
  8. Do not criticize until you can say “I understand”
  9. Do not disagree disputatiously (arguing to argue) or contentiously (being controversial for the sake of controversy)
  10. Demonstrate the difference between knowledge and opinion by presenting reasons for criticism
  11. If criticizing, demonstrate where the author is misinformed, uninformed, illogical or incomplete

Now, #5 is going to be tough because as I mentioned, I didn’t bother annotating or underlining anything in this book. I really don’t have an easy way to reference key ideas or moments where the author built his argument. Similarly, #6 is a challenge. Instead, I am working with my general impression of the text having completed it.

I also want to avoid criticism of the author and his treatment and focus on my own understanding of the subject as gleaned from the book. Although I’ve studied the events in detail at other times in my academic history and through other books (The Days of the French Revolution) I am by no means an expert on the period and I certainly haven’t read or investigated it enough to spot errors in the author’s knowledge or specific arguments. Instead, my desire is to explore what I took away from the reading and what about my own cognitive abilities or knowledge hindered me from getting more.

In that vein, one of the things HTRAB recommends is to read with the following question in mind: “What problem was the author trying to solve in writing this book?”

Related to this is the personal question: “Why am I reading this book? What question do I hope to answer by reading it?”

Origins

So why did I read “Citizens”? I’ve been exploring the cause of political revolutions for several years and over time my perspective is coalescing around the idea that there is no such thing as a popular revolution– that all political change occurs at the top and is pushed down rather than occurring at the bottom and destabilizing the top. My view is that a political system always has a set of elites at the top who control it (the “in elites”) and a set of elites who can be grouped as those without power but aiming to influence power or agitating to get it themselves (the “out elites”). These two groups are always in conflict with one another and while they may use non-elite social groups as a tool in the struggle, these non-elite groups never act autonomously or without the express authority and direction of one of the elite groups.

In ancient monarchic regimes, this view can be clearly exemplified by “intrigues of court” in which the monarch, his friends and his family are constantly fighting to maintain power against antagonized aristocratic groups and other claimants to the thrown (internally) and foreign powers seeking domination or control (externally), with the frequent circumstance that foreign intrigues come to dominate internal politics and vice versa.

The two major countervailing examples of this theory are the American and French Revolutions, both of which were supposed to be popular uprisings against corrupt central authorities which results in a wholesale transformation of the political landscape. The more I studied the American Revolution, the more it became obvious that, for example, the Continental Congress was a group of colonial elites claiming representation of “the people” who were conspiring not for more liberty but to have and to create the power of the colonial government themselves in opposition to the British king and parliament. The French Revolution, then, seemed to stand alone as a popular affair.

The question: “Was the French Revolution an example of a spontaneous popular uprising or does it conform to the theory of elite conflict?”

I chose “Citizens” to explore this question because Simon Schama’s thesis is an explicit answer to that question: the French Revolution was not a popular uprising but an example of an elite-driven reform movement getting out of hand, and the end result of the event was not to put in place an entirely new governing structure but rather to exchange captains and confederates from one regime to another, with the means of governance and central social problems largely unchanged.

Structure

Schama divides “Citizens” into three parts:

  1. Alterations
  2. Expectations
  3. Choices

Although the text largely moves chronologically, there is some jumping ahead (often in the form of acknowledgements of a particular person’s eventual fate, or the irony of their present behavior given a later position they adopt) and back. Each chapter attempts to explore a specific theme from multiple angles and people’s perspectives. The three parts of the book chronologically explore the ancien regime of Louis XVI, the events of the French Revolution leading up to the end of the monarchy and the formation of the revolutionary Republic and finally the implosion of the Republic into the Directory and the Terror.

As the title of the book suggests, another way to think of these parts is the changing conception of the French public (elites and commoners) from the subjects of a monarchy, to the citizens of a republic and finally, to un-personhood during the paranoia of the Terror in which everyone was suspect and might be tried and executed as a threat at any time. A final thematic overlay are the ideas and periods of reform, revolution and repression and retrogression.

The argument, outlined

In the first part, Schama explores the idea that rather than being a squalid, repressive and backward political entity, the French Monarchy of the late 1700’s was progressive-minded (even for its time) and was already engaged in various reforms up to the eve of the events which came to be known as the French Revolution. While the French state consisted of a large and growing bureaucracy and a complicated and at times oppressive tax authority, the monarch and his ministers were civic-minded and future-oriented and saw themselves as having a duty to improving the lives and welfare of the common public. From supporting internal trade freedoms to celebrating technological achievements (hot air balloons were an exciting development of the times), the French monarchy was engaged in a process of self-criticism and analysis and attempting to implement the “state of the art” in a variety of fields.

One major challenge to this effort was the financial overhang of the Seven Years’ War and French sponsorship of the American War of Independence which resulted in repeated strains and logjams as the monarchy tried to fund current expenditures. Another was the sense amongst many out elites, including a rising professional class of bureaucrats who had purchased or gained their office through personal qualification, that the reform movement wasn’t going fast enough and left too many undue privileges in the hands of hereditary nobles and entitled clergy.

This reform movement occurred against a backdrop of philosophical debate. While some elites held on to ancient notions of nobility, gentility and class, and new class of professional elites were held in thrall to the naturalism and humanism of Rousseau, who “Citizens” portrays as a peerless thought-leader amongst the aggrieved counter-elite. Rousseau held up a notion of primitive equality, simplicity and “sensibilite” as the hallmarks of an enlightened society in contrast to the ranks and obligations, splendor and sentimentality of the monarchy and aristocratic society.

Transitions

The Revolution itself began as series of largely disconnected challenges to the power of the king and his ministers which initially aimed at testing their resolve and forcing their hand with regards to particular reforms. Over a short period of time, however, the various agitators united around a common theme– first, opposition to the monarchy itself and promotion of the establishment of competing institutions of social power (the Legislative Assembly) and later, the wholesale destruction of the monarchy and nobility as a threat to the revolutionary movement.

What is fascinating about this period is observing who the revolutionaries were. Not the members of the lynch mobs and other mass movements, but the members of the Legislative Assembly and other successive political bodies. These people were mostly current minor and major nobility, clergy, and many legal professionals and provincial politicians. The king’s own cousin, the Duc d’Orleans, was one of the leading revolutionaries (until he was guillotined in the ensuing hysteria of the Revolution) whose residence in Paris was a hotbed of anti-monarchic intellectualism and activity.

Although Paris fishwives drove the cannon to Versaille, none sat in the Legislative Assembly. Though artisans and other manual laborers helped tear down the Bastille, none spoke in the National Convention. And while peasants were recruited for the revolutionary militias to fight counter-revolutionaries foreign and domestic, no peasant’s son was a member of the Directory.

The revolution lost

The murder of Louis XVI, his wife and many of his ministers marked the physical end of the monarchy and the dawn of an elite civil war which culminated in the submission of the Republic at the feet of an even more powerful central authority, the military dictator and self-styled emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. With the legitimacy of power itself questioned by the revolution, it seems only natural that the logical outcome would be a series of murderous battles for power ending in the dominance of a military figure.

As I read the book and watched one “patriot” after another turn on each other and seek the shedding of blood as a solution to all crises and recriminations I wondered how much of the paranoia was sincere versus concocted to serve a short-term political purpose. Although launched by out elites originally, the Revolution created no stable platform for the in elites to control and thus the political competition intensified dramatically. The constant accusations of foreign plots and emigres counter-revolutionary schemes at times seemed constructed and artificial, yet the universalist tone of the French Revolution and the intermarriage of European political elites across national boundaries meant there were good reasons why foreign outsides wanted “in”, too.

Closing remarks

One of my biggest challenges with this book is my inability to pronounce French words and names, and my limited understanding of many of the French terms and locations introduced, many of which I was unsure if they were properly defined before being relied upon in the narrative. For example, the term “ci-devant” was used in nearly every chapter, sometimes multiple times, but when I looked it up in the index for its first instance I saw no way to define the term other than a better reading of context than I had. I realize I should’ve looked it up right away, it refers to a “reactionary” political person and in the context of the French Revolution connoted an elite who resisted the changes brought about. This is a good example of the value of HTRAB’s suggestions of focusing on key language an author uses to make his arguments and studying the usage itself!

Relatedly, I struggled to keep track of all the major figures of the period, and there were many in part because this period convulsed much of French society but also partly because so many met grisly ends and had their responsibilities taken up by another who in turn became prominent in the proceedings.

Something I really enjoyed about Schama’s writing was its referencing of artistic works of the period which illustrated the events. It’s not so much that I am a simpleton who prefers words to pictures but rather, I felt the selection and abundance of imagery served to capture the mood and subtleties of various moments that are hard to appreciate in just reading about them. Especially interesting from this standpoint are the various “ideal imagery” commissioned by the revolutionary government to celebrate fallen heroes. The way these people are depicted, the details emphasized, the details left out and the obvious attempt to actively control the moral tone of events demonstrated the important role forms of propaganda played in elevating one faction and lowering another as the civil war raged on. The fetishism of the Roman Republic and its heroes and martyrs was also telling and very Rousseauian in the sense of idealizing noble savagery.

Is it not obvious that a revolution is betrayed by obsessing about the establishment of norms and structures which belong to the past?

I believe Simon Schama wanted to demonstrate that the Revolution was not spontaneous and grassroots, but an elite phenomenon, thus satisfying my curiosity. I think he also was concerned with highlighting the violence of the Revolution as a necessary part and logically-connected to its ideals, rather than something that was a minor theme or an unsightly outlier aspect. In both of these efforts, I believe he succeeded. I think I would’ve gotten much more out of this book if I had done more to “make it my own” as I read it. That being said, I enjoyed the read overall and found it truly terrifying contemplating how violent things can become when the out elites give up on working within the system. This was a strange observation for me to make because I don’t think of myself as a defender of the status quo or anxious to see a measured pace for reform and political change– just the opposite. I found myself wondering “which side” I would’ve taken, and what I might have done to ensure I survived to the end!

3/5

   

Review – Napoleon: A Life (#history, #dictators, #books, #review)

Napoleon: A Life

by Andrew Roberts, published 2015

I’ve long been fascinated by political revolutions, where they come from, how the unfold, whether they’re effective in actually changing the social organization of the society which experiences them. But I have not spent as much time studying reactions to political revolutions. Having read several books about the French Revolution, I decided it was time to study the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte. Going into my reading, the primary questions I had in mind were:

  • What social conditions existed in revolutionary France that permitted Napoleon’s rise?
  • Was he actually a reformer and, to the extent he was, were his laws innovative or “useful”?
  • Was he truly a great leader and military commander and, if so, what personal characteristics did he possess which might have contributed to his success?
  • Do “Great Men” exist and if so, was he one of them?

As I read Roberts’s lengthy and overall balanced biography of Napoleon — it’s clear he believes in the Great Man theory of history and would put Napoleon in that category, but he rarely engaged in hagiography and was ready to admit his foibles, though also quick to wave them away as typical of the time or typical of humanity in general — I also developed a few more questions:

  • Why wasn’t Napoleon’s regime stable?
  • Why did Napoleon promote so many family members to positions of power (especially outside France)?
  • Could he have enjoyed a durable peace with neighboring countries, particularly Great Britain?

Setting aside Napoleon’s personal energy, intelligence and social talents, a large part of his rise appears to be attributable to timing and luck.

Rarely in military history has there been so high a turnover of generals as in France in the 1790s. It meant that capable young men could advance through the ranks at unprecedented speed… having been on leave for fifty-eight of his ninety-nine months of service — with and without permission — and after spending less than four years on active duty, Napoleon was made, at twenty-four, a general.

Surely it takes exceptional talent to even be considered for such a promotion at such a young age. But just as surely, Napoleon would not have been in a position to see and do the things he saw and did, when he saw them and when he did them, had this condition not existed by which he could achieve such a promotion at such a young age. The text doesn’t state whether any other generals were appointed at such an age around the time Napoleon was but it doesn’t matter– it is not to say that a “Napoleon” was bound to arise in such conditions, but only that it’s hard to imagine the Napoleon arising without such conditions.

And this luck or timing factor is a double-edged sword which can also help to explain his rapid political decline:

Many of the phenomena of Napoleonic warfare that had been characteristic of his earlier campaigns — elderly opponents lacking energy, a nationally and linguistically diverse enemy against the homogenous French, a vulnerable spot onto which Napoleon could latch and not let go, a capacity for significantly faster movement than the enemy, and to concentrate forces to achieve numerical advantage for just long enough to be decisive — were not present or were simply impossible in the vast reaches of European Russia. The Russian generals tended to be much younger than the general Napoleon had faced in Italy — averaging forty-six years old against the French generals’ forty-three — and the Russian army was more homogenous than Napoleon’s. This was to be a campaign utterly unlike any he had fought before, indeed unlike any in history.

Whereas in his early political and military career all of Napoleon’s strengths proved to be an uncannily perfect fit for the weaknesses of his opponents, the environmental factors shifted such that Napoleon faced a political-evolutionary dead end. Having mistook his earlier luck for fate, he mismeasured (or was simply unaware of) the enormous risks he was taking in this new, hostile environment and committed himself in such a way that he was doomed to be defeated.

Napoleon’s record as a social reformer is similarly mixed and confused. Although he rose to power supported by the burgeoning middle classes of France by vowing to defend the redistribution of Church and aristocratic property confiscated during the Revolution, Napoleon put in place a confusing and economically regressive system of managed trade (internal and external) known as his “Continental System” which was an intellectual continuation of the mercantilist Colbertism of the French monarchy, which was aimed at disrupting the trade economy of Great Britain and thus its willingness and ability to fight but which ended up proving more aggravating and ruinous to those same middle classes, as well as the economies of various French political allies.

France had reached only the level of industrialization that Britain had enjoyed in 1780, an indictment of revolutionary, Directory and Napoleonic economic policy and the Colbertism they all followed. ‘I never saw him reject a proposition that was aimed at encouraging or supporting industry,’ recalled Chaptal.

The Continental System was truly byzantine, an irony given that the multitude of taxes and trade regulations put in place by the French crown prior to the Revolution bred a nation of smugglers and tax evaders which sowed social instability and a lack of respect for the crown’s authority:

Different types of licenses costing different amounts authorized different companies from different departments to trade in different prescribed commodities with different foreign ports. The rules were constantly changing, seemingly capriciously, with endless clauses and sub-clauses covering every likely combination and permutation.

How could Napoleon’s regime achieve stability under such economic conditions induced by this policy? In fact, Napoleon specifically “rejected the idea of competition and free exchange as positive phenomena”, a formula almost guaranteed to produce conflict at home and war abroad. A zero-sum world is inhabited by predators and prey alone. Combined with Napoleon’s reckless and nearly constant warfighting, the French economy was very nearly wrecked, as evidenced by the fact that “at his best, he was forced to borrow at higher rates than Britain at its worst.” The upkeep of the military and the logistics of fighting far from home had a devastating effect on the finances of Napoleon’s state.

Napoleon put in place a system of mulcting conquered territories via “contributions” which were to help offset the costs of the wars. He also forced occupied territories to pay for the provisioning and billeting of troops. Despite these policies, Napoleon had to raise taxes and customs duties at home and engage in egregious borrowings. Rather than being a profit center, the wars were a weight around the neck of French society:

The war did not pay for the war, but only for 60 per cent of it, with the remaining 40 per cent being picked up by the French people in various other ways.

This problem was exacerbated still further by deploying this capital to fight wars of conquest in economically backward locales, such as Egypt:

the country had no watermills and only one windmill… [Napoleon and his savants spent time pondering questions such as] could Nile water be made drinkable; were watermills or windmills better for Cairo; [could they] teach Egyptians the benefits of wheelbarrows and handsaws?

And despite this incredible expense, nearly every one of his campaigns finds Napoleon writing letters to his quartermaster demanding basic provisions for his troops such as shoes (and terrible necessity given the thousands of kilometers his troops would travel on foot), adequate food and medicine. If the Napoleonic state couldn’t adequately provision its soldiery, the political backbone of the regime, how could it ever hope to innovate and reform its domestic economy?

Clearly, Great Britain got the better of the bargain in pursuing a policy of subsidizing proxy combatants:

In 1794 payments to allies amounted to 14 per cent of British government revenues… Although the grand total of GBP65,830,228 paid to France’s enemies between 1793 and 1815 was astronomical, it was markedly less than the cost of maintaining, and then fielding, a huge standing army… In 1815 alone, Britain subsidized no fewer than thirty European Powers.

The cost of war on French society, on any society, is not just financial. It is primarily physical, and it is truly horrible to behold as the nuances of warfighting are catalogued throughout the book in excruciating detail:

‘Everyone was scratching [due to the scabies mite],’ recalled a veteran, and one report to the Committee of Public Health stated that there were no fewer than 400,000 scabetics in the army. Napoleon later set up special hospitals for them during his campaigns [which he himself contracted earlier in his career].

Meanwhile, the battles and sieges, far from being conducted with a gentlemanly honor, routinely inflicted mass casualties on civilian populations caught up in the mix:

Genoa surrendered on June 4, by which time around 30,000 of its 160,000 inhabitants [almost 25%!] had died of starvation and of diseases associated with malnutrition, as had 4,000 French soldiers…”If one thinks always of humanity — only of humanity — one should give up going to war. I don’t know how war is to be conducted on the rosewater plan” [Napoleon later said].

The failed march on Russia in 1812 is later described as an “equinocide” in which literally tens of thousands of horses, almost the entire stock of France and the German States at that point in time, die of exposure, starvation, disease and battle. The waste of capital and life even before the dawn of mass warfare is staggering to behold for a person who loves civilization and peaceful trade.

While his early campaigns seem driven by ambition and his middle campaigns seem driven by a strategic belief in attacking as defense, his latter campaigns seem defensive and desperate. At a certain point, Napoleon realized his chance of a long reign was diminished the more he exhorted his state to fight. Unfortunately, his political status as an usurper and an upstart meant he had little realistic chance of a durable peace– his neighbors were committed politically to removing him from power and reinstating a monarchy. He antagonized them still further by placing his relatives on the thrones of various satellite states, but this was a further blunder in that many proved to be unreliable allies whose own search for power and permanence led them to follow policies contrary to Napoleon’s own desires. It’s hard to imagine a strategic environment where he would’ve been allowed to reign until his peaceful passing, at least so long as he pursued a disruptive domestic economic policy combined with an aggressive international trade paradigm that severely restricted the free flow of goods and services.

Far from a Great Man, then, we see Napoleon for what he mostly was– extremely intelligent and talented, yes, but subject to the same flaws and cognitive biases of all of us which led to numerous “unforced errors” which accumulated to the point of his downfall. Irrational loyalty to his spendthrift, cuckolding wife; doctoring public records to allow political prestige that was illegal; making up the results of democratic elections; being motivated deep down by a desire from childhood to be thought of as a historical figure. All the personal charm and the biggest library of wisdom and human experience in the world (Napoleon was a notorious bibliophile) couldn’t stop a person so hell bent at times on being their own worst enemy.

This “Life” was interesting to read in many ways and I found myself highlighting and underlining all manner of passages. It did get me to think more deeply about some of the questions I came to it with, as well as others that were raised along the way, but it didn’t succeed at getting me to fundamentally rethink any of my existing principles. And ultimately, although it demonstrated a great amount of research and personal expertise on behalf of the author and was pleasurable as a narrative at times, I found myself less inspired and moulded by this study of Napoleon than I had hoped to be and I doubt I’ll refer back to this title again in the future.

3/5

On Stirner: The False Principle Of Our Education (#egoism, #education, #humanism, #realism)

Max Stirner (1806-1856) was a proponent of philosophical egoism, which states that there is no “right and wrong” in a moral sense but only “right and wrong” in the sense of a given means being appropriate to a stated end. In this way, he sought to create a value-free philosophy, just as Ludwig von Mises claimed that economics was a value-free social science in that economics did not say whether a given economic end was “good or bad”, only whether the economic means chosen for obtaining it was appropriate or not.

Stirner was also a contemporary of the Young Hegelians, and a student and fierce critic of Hegel himself. Whereas he could foresee that the intellectual project of the Hegelian “moderns” was nothing but a new religion and a reformation of the thinking of the “ancients” of Greece and Rome which would ultimately end in a total state and an orgiastic ruination of the individual, Stirner instead tried to create something entirely different by reclaiming the idea of individual as owner of his own life. This he set out to accomplish in The Ego and His Own.

A few years before he published his primary work on the subject, however, Stirner wrote a pamphlet on the nature of the modern European debate over educational systems, entitled “The False Principle of Our Education“, in which he declared “The school-question is a life-question.”

Why is the school-question a life-question? Because, Stirner says, we are in school in “the time of our plasticity.” The various factions in society fight over the schools because they understand this is the moment when individuals are most malleable, moldable, shapeable– control the fate of an individual in his schooling of youth and you can potentially control him for his entire life.

Historically,

Until the Enlightenment… higher education lay without protest in the hands of the humanists… based almost solely on the understanding of the old classics… they selected the best education of the world of antiquity… the people were supposed to remain in the laity opposite of the learned gentlemen, were only supposed to gaze in astonishment at the strange splendor and venerate it

This is so because people have a tendency to respect and admire the past just as they respect and admire their parents and ancestors. By setting the educational model in the past, a period which is so far from recent human experience that its iniquities can be forgotten while its triumphs can be lauded and envied, the humanists created an educational system that played to people’s traditionalist bias, making it ripe for automatic respect and veneration. Then, by restricting such education to the elite of society, they managed to transfer this veneration to the elites who held such educations. They came to represent the old, respectable past and so were respected and granted authority themselves.

This was the educational system of the humanists of the European Middle Ages. The system of the “moderns” post-Enlightenment, the realists, would not replace but reform it:

To eliminate the priesthood of the scholars and the laity of the people is the endeavor of realism and therefore it must surpass humanism… the essential advantage of scholars, universal education, should be beneficial to everyone… “to be able to talk about everything”… therefore familiarity with the things and situations of the present… because it satisfied the common need of everyone to find themselves in their world and time

But the aims of the humanists and the realists were short-sighted:

to grasp the past as humanism teaches and to seize the present, which is the aim of realism, leads both only to power over the transitory

Humanists offered a materialist education– to know of things. Realists offered a formal education– to know of categories, classes, and shapes, but not the value of them to anybody. Stirner himself offers an entirely different alternative, which he calls personalism— to know the self. In this failing, Stirner sees that,

knowledge is not brought to completion and perspicuity, that it remains a material and formal, a positive thing, without rising to the absolute, that it loads us down like a burden

The false principle of education, to Stirner, is that education has never been given to others or taken philosophically to its total end, the enabling of the creation of the self, or ego. It was stopped short by both the humanists and the realists in order to serve other needs, other egos. Instead, a foundation on true principle would imply,

the final goal of education… is: the personal or free man. Truth itself consists in nothing other than man’s revelation of himself… such thoroughly true men are not supplied by school; if they are nevertheless there, they are there in spite of school… No knowledge, however thorough and extensive, no brilliance and perspicuity, no dialectic sophistication, will preserve us from the commonness of thought and will

The true purpose of education should not be to fill people’s minds with stuff (facts, figures, events, people, places) or with implications (what to think of the stuff); the purpose of education should be to enable individuals to find themselves. Everything short of this does not serve the individual, but someone else:

Only a formal and material training is being aimed at and only scholars come out of the menageries of the humanists, only “useful citizens” out of those of the realists, both of whom are indeed nothing but subservient people… If one awakens in men the idea of freedom then the free men will incessantly go on to free themselves; if, on the contrary, one only educates them, then they will at all times accommodate themselves to circumstances in the most highly educated and elegant manner and degenerate into subservient cringing souls

Educational philosophy, then, can be boiled down into three primary alternatives: to educate and create masters, to educate and create slaves, or to educate and create individuals (who are neither slave nor master).

The present state of education, based off humanist and realist principles, is one of disarray and pathetic. College students,

trained in the most excellent manner, they go on training; drilled, they continue drilling… it is not knowledge that should be taught, rather, the individual should come to self-development… we do not hinder man’s quest for knowledge; why should we intimidate his free will?

Why, but only to control him.

Stirner crushes mercilessly the lie that we educate within the current paradigm so as to civilize people, and thereby make them safe co-habitants of our society, that without education these “free egos” would turn to chaos and “anarchy” and tear society apart in violent blunder:

I oppose him with the strength of my own freedom; thus the spite of the child will break up by itself. Whoever is a complete person does not need to be an authority.

“Free egos” are only threats to those who seek control over others (for they pose a form of opposition to their own ego) or those who are in a position of subservience, control and dependence upon an authority and are thereby not free to resist the aggressions of another themselves.

Instead,

school is to be life and there, as outside of it, the self-revelation of the individual is to be the task… only freedom is equality… we need from now on a personal education (not the impressing of convictions)… knowledge must die and rise again as will and create itself anew each day as a free person.

Beware those who would argue otherwise; aware of it or not, they’re attempting to set up a trap by which to control you.

Firenze (Italy)

A few things I’ve learned about Italy:

  1. Italy is ridiculously hot in August. Like 100F+ when you’re inland.
  2. Italy is a lot more poor and a lot less glamorous than Americans (me) think (thought).
  3. Toscanans hate Pisans.

image

Our Italy trip began with a short stay in Florence. It was extremely hot, and it took some getting used to. Our jetlag made us even more uncomfortable, and so we took it easy for the first couple days. We stayed right in front of the River Arno by the Ponte Vecchio.
image
image

River Arno is about 150 miles long and originates from Casentino and flows thru Pisa to the sea (east to west). “Ponte Vecchio” means “old bridge,” and, according to our shuttle driver, it was initially built as a slaughterhouse. The initial slaughterhouses on land were too stinky, so they added theses houses on the bridge. The animals would be led there and slaughtered, and their guts and remains would be dumped straight into the river. The stinky water would flow to Pisa, which was perfect because no one liked the Pisans anyway.
image
image

Our hotel was also really close to the city center, where the Duomo is. Florence’s Duomo is really an impressive building. My pictures don’t really do it justice. There are a lot of details in the stonework that is really humbling. The city center is also where all the fake (replicas) statues are, but I don’t have any pictures of them because I was too lazy…
image

We also went to the huge market in Florence to try the roast pork sammiches, as recommended by Nell and B. I noticed that this place was particularly popular with the Japanese crowd, as they had an article displayed where they were featured in a Japanese magazine. There were also many signs in Japanese describing their foods, and many Asian tourists were clamoring for a photo-op with their storefront… Anyway, the sammiches were good, although a bit salty for me.
image

Our first dinner in Florence was fantastic. We went to this restaurant called Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco (Restaurant of the White Boar) (also at the recommendation of Nell & B) and ordered a meat appetizer, a cheese plate, and delicious entrees, including my “chicken in cheese sauce with truffles.” The decor was very unique, and it made the place feel very homey, like a mom-and-pop. Definitely a memorable eating experience. We also went to get gelato at least once a day so far, but it’s usually consumed pretty quickly before I get a pic 😉

image

image

On another day in Florence, we went to see The David. Michelangelo was only 26 when he was able to convince the Operai (essentially a public works committee) to let him finish what Agostino started, and it took Michy two years to finish what is now one of the most revered statues. The David is revered because it’s so different from all the other Davids. For example, in Michy’s David, David isn’t standing on the head of Goliath, a monster he’d slain. Instead, this statue captures him in the moment after he has decided to fight Goliath but before the fight has begun; in other words, “It is a representation of the moment between conscious choice and conscious action” (wiki article of The David). I don’t have any personal pics of the guy because we weren’t allowed to take pix. Plus you can just find him online.

Overall, Firenze was neat to experience but I’m not sure if it’s the most beautiful city in Italy, and unfortunately, I think the weather has had a really negative impact on my experience thus far. Like most tourist cities, Florence is a bit stinky and crowded (though probably less so than early summer when even more people are there). Wikipedia: Italy says that Italy is the 25th most developed country and ranks in the top ten of the Quality of Life index, but I think those stats are misleading. According to our Italian shuttle driver, 72% of their paycheck is taken from them in taxes- 51% top marginal tax (based on income) and 21% VAT (value added tax, or tax when a service, product, or material is added… I think). That’s a lot of money to have stolen from you!! So Italians have a difficult time covering living expenses and saving money. The Italian economy isn’t doing so hot, making it a less than ideal place where I’d want to live.

Our time in Florence was short, but there’s still a lot left to do elsewhere in Italy! Next post will be about our half day in Tuscany and Lucca!

Oh, and the answer to why the Leaning Tower of Pisa was built! We heard an interesting story from our shuttle driver the other day: LTP was built to boost the Pisan economy by increasing foot traffic in the area. The idea was that by building a structure that was a little off kilter (literally), it would increase public interest (because a leaning tower is way more interesting than a straight tower) and draw people to Pisa, as there was mass pilgrimage through the area at that time. An interesting and plausible theory!

Intro to Italy & Question of the Day

We made it to Pisa, Italy!

Our shuttle to Florence picked us up and took a special detour for us to see the Leaning Tower.

That’s our morning so far, it’s terribly hot here, and we’re all irritably jet-lagged, so maybe more later tonight!

image

QOTD: Why was the Tower of Pisa constructed?

(Answer tomorrow 🙂 )

2013 Year End Travel Schedule

Where we’re jetting this year:
Cinque Terre
Florence, Cinque Terre, Sicily, Rome (Italy): Aug 1 – Aug 15

Washington DC
DC (USA): Aug 18 – 25

Machu Picchu
Cusco, Santiago, Valparaiso, Mendoza, Buenos Aires (South America): Aug 29 – Sept 16

 

Video – Hugh Hendry Visits The Milken Institute (#macro)

Hugh Hendry interviewed in a panel discussion at the 2012 Milken Institute Global Conference

Major take-aways from the interview:

  • Global economy is “grossly distorted” by two fixed exchange regimes: the Euro (similar to the gold standard of the 1920s) and the Dollar-Renminbi
  • China is attempting to play the role of the “bridge”, just as Germany did in the 1920s, to help the global economy spend its way into recovery
  • Two types of leverage: operational and financial; Germany is a country w/ operational leverage; Golden Rule of Operational Leverage, “Never, never countenance having financial leverage”, this explains Germany’s financial prudence and why they’ll reject a transfer union
  • Transfer of economic rent in Europe; redistribution of rents within Europe, the trade is short the financial sector, long the export sector
  • Heading toward Euro parity w/ the dollar, if not lower; results in profound economic advantage especially for businesses with operational leverage
  • “The thing I fear” is confiscation: of client’s assets, my assets; we are 1 year away from true nationalization of French banks
  • Theme of US being supplanted as global leader, especially by Chinese, is overwrought
  • Why US will not be easily overtaken: when US had its “China moment”, it was on a gold standard…
    • implication, as an entrepreneur, you had one chance– get it right or you’re finished
    • today is a world of mercantilism, money-printing, the  entrepreneur has been devalued because you get a 2nd, 3rd, 4th chance
    • when the US had its emergence on a hard money system, it built foundations which are “rock solid”
    • today, this robust society has restructured debt, restructured the cost of labor, has cleared property at market levels
    • additionally, “God has intervened”, w/ progress in shale oil extraction technology; US paying $2, Europe $10, Asians $14-18
  • Dollar is only going to go one way, higher; this is like early 1980/82
  • “I haven’t finished Atlas Shrugged, I can’t finish it”: it’s too depressing; it reads like non-fiction, she’s describing the world of today
  • The short sale ban was an attack on free thought; people have died in wars for the privilege to stand up and say “The Emperor has no clothes”; banned short selling because truth is unpalatable to political class; the scale and magnitude of the problem is greater than their ability to respond
  • We are single digit years away from a most profound market-clearing moment, on the order of 1932 or 1982, where you don’t need smarts, you just need to be long
  • Hard-landing scenario in Asia combined w/ recession in Europe would result in “bottoming” process, at which point all you need is courage to go long