Hanson's theory is that the roots of Western civilization and Western values can be found in the culture of the small farmers of ancient Greece in 600...moreHanson's theory is that the roots of Western civilization and Western values can be found in the culture of the small farmers of ancient Greece in 600 B.C.E.+/-. It is an idea which I think has a lot of validity, but I found Hanson's writing so dry and often expressed through a rather narrow lens of ultra-conservatism that it was difficult for me to follow it. It was in fact rather boring, even though the topic is of substantial interest to me. Moreover, it is a very long book and, even though there is a lot of important material here, I think it could have been stated in a more succinct form that would have appealed more to the general public. But perhaps Hanson was not writing for the general public but for his fellow scholars. Even for that audience, though, I would say the book was a bit dull.(less)
Roberts writes about the advances of women in the political and cultural milieu of our time and how these advances came as our generation (and each ge...moreRoberts writes about the advances of women in the political and cultural milieu of our time and how these advances came as our generation (and each generation) stood on the shoulders of our mothers who struggled and sacrificed to earn respect. She writes from a very personal perspective - about her mother, her sister, her friends in the world of journalism, and about her own experiences and those of her daughter and nieces.
Roberts' journalistic attempt to be, dare I say, "fair and balanced" leads her to give equal weight in her writing to a certain female politician who is a media creation and who never had an original idea regarding the role of government and to other female politicians who have devoted their lives to public service. Many of them have suffered greatly for it. Roberts' acknowledgment of those sacrifices is a rather shallow thing.
In fact, the entire book is rather shallow in its outline of women's issues and their contributions. It is at heart a personal memoir of what she has observed and experienced. It is a pleasant read, but any reader who wants a truly serious discussion of the status of women in our society will need to look elsewhere. (less)
Oh, my God, this book made my brain hurt! Actually, reading any Umberto Eco book makes my brain hurt. Even The Name of the Rose, which I loved, and Fo...moreOh, my God, this book made my brain hurt! Actually, reading any Umberto Eco book makes my brain hurt. Even The Name of the Rose, which I loved, and Foucault's Pendulum, which I liked, gave me pains when I was reading them. I think the problem may be that Eco is so far beyond me intellectually that I have to struggle to keep up with him. Even so, I probably miss a lot of his references. Somewhat paradoxically though, I do enjoy reading him. I enjoy the challenge.
This book is the fictionalization of the creation of an actual work of fiction, the notorious The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This is the anti-Semitic screed that had its origin in the 19th century, being based on what was apparently intended as a political satire. In the hands of those who hated Jews and who sought justification for oppressing and ultimately eliminating them, it became the excuse for the instigation of extreme evil.
Eco takes us into the middle and late 19th century in Italy, France, and Prussia. It was a revolutionary time, a time of extreme political upheaval when Italy was on its way to being unified and the Paris Commune was attempting reform in France. Moreover, it was a time of religious conflict and of the prominence of belief in the occult and of the rise of Freemasonry, as well as celebration of Black Masses. This was a heady mixture which resulted in plots and counter-plots. Eco imagines that behind it all is one man, one evil genius, Simone Simonini.
Simonini is a master counterfeiter who produces all kinds of fake documents which keep the political pot boiling, including the document which convicts the Jewish Captain Dreyfus in France and lands him on Devil's Island. It is Simonini who, at the behest of the Russian secret service, produces The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The document purports to be the minutes of a meeting of rabbis in the Prague Cemetery, in which they discuss their plans for world domination. Not only was this document accepted and believed by many in the 19th century, it continued to be published as fact(!) throughout the 20th century and was actually cited by Hitler as justification for the Holocaust. Henry Ford - yes, that Henry Ford! - was also a big fan. Sadly, it is still being published - and believed - by people today.
There is an extensive cast of characters here, who are sometimes difficult to keep straight. Interestingly, they, except for Simonini, are mostly all actual historical characters and, Eco assures us, they spoke and behaved in the way that he reports. I'm not enough of a historian to judge whether that is really true, but it does give this story an extra fillip of authenticity.
This was a difficult read, but I'm glad I read it - emphasis on the past tense. It does have some relevance, I think, for today's world beyond that unfortunate zombie document, The Protocols, which just refuses to die. It reveals to us how easily humans can be manipulated by the unscrupulous who are willing to concoct and repeat lies that appeal to people's basest instincts - and keep telling them over and over and over again until they become a part of the public canon. God, what fools these mortals be! (less)
In the time of Julius Caesar, a Roman poet named Lucretius wrote a poem called De rerum natura, On the Nature of Things. It was a poem, Stephen Greenb...moreIn the time of Julius Caesar, a Roman poet named Lucretius wrote a poem called De rerum natura, On the Nature of Things. It was a poem, Stephen Greenblatt assures us, of unsurpassed beauty, but it was also a work which explored and tried to explain why the universe is the way it is. It explained that everything from stars to earthworms was made up of atoms, tiny particles which could not be divided. Beyond the atoms was the void, and that is the universe: atoms, void, and nothingness. You might say that this poem was the beginning of string theory, the attempt to explain everything.
Lucretius was a follower of the philosopher Epicurus. He believed the highest good was pleasure and that everything about humans including the "soul" was made up of those atoms that he described. When humans die, the soul, which is a physical part of the human, dies, too. There is no afterlife of either reward or punishment. Therefore, human beings should seek pleasure in this life since that's all there is. In seeking that pleasure, though, they should try to live a moral and abstemious life, one that brings good not just to the individual but to the community of which he is a part.
Lucretius' poem was lost sometime in antiquity. In 1417, an Italian book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini found a copy of it in a German monastery. He had it copied and sent it to a fellow humanist in Italy. In time, more and more copies were made and distributed and the philosophy of the poet began to find its way into the conversations and the thoughts of intellectuals and artists of the Renaissance. The Catholic Church tried to stop the dissemination of ideas which flowed from the poem. They convicted many admirers of the poem of heresy and killed them in the most horrendous and cruel ways possible. But they were unable to stop the flow of ideas.
Stephen Greenblatt makes a strong case that the modern world actually began with the wider distribution of Lucretius' poem, helped along by Gutenberg and his printing press. Throughout the six hundred or so years since the poem emerged from obscurity, it has influenced the thinking of many movers and shakers who have helped to create the world we know. Not least of these was Thomas Jefferson who once wrote to a correspondent who asked his philosophy of life, "I am an Epicurean."
Interesting stuff and very well-written. Greenblatt knows how to tell a story that connects all the dots. (less)