Sunday, May 27, 2012


I never went to college.  That's one of the drivers behind this particular ten year reading course; I'll probably spend the rest of my life making it up to myself for not having gone to college.  (And yes, I can still go and almost certainly will in some way, shape or form, but going to college when you're pushing forty is different than going right out of high school.)  My reasons were simple.  They were, in some particular order, 1) I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, 2) I 'took a year off' and got hooked on work paychecks and 3) the debt always seemed too high.
That third one was a real obstacle for me, even back in the 90's when it was just barely possible to put yourself through.  My understanding is that tuition is higher now.  In fact, it's so high that more and more people are questioning the value of a degree.  What kind of degree do you need to have to justify $100,000 worth of debt?  There might be a few degrees worth that, but not many and not nearly as many as there are students racking up the debt.  (A friend of mine has a friend who got a PHD in acting from an Ivy League school.  That's just out and out foolish on about three different levels.  She'll spend the rest of her life paying for those decisions and I do mean paying.)
With all of that in mind, I found this article (via Instapundit) quite interesting.  It talks about the future role of online education and what it will mean for traditional colleges.  And whether some kind of online system could actual serve as a replacement.  The whole thing is worth reading, but this stood out:
One of the radical changes I think we will see is the decoupling of the humanities from technical and professional education. As it is, universities package together two forms of education with radically different economics. Scientific, technological, and professional courses teach skills that are judged by objective standards and have direct, measurable economic value.
The humanities, at best, have an economic value that is indirect and difficult to quantify. Perhaps it will make you more creative and a deeper thinker. Maybe Steve Jobs sitting in on classes in calligraphy helped inspire the Macintosh. But then again, the humanities departments are also packed with a bunch of charlatans who will waste your time with things like--well, here's an example. Check out a hilarious review by Joe Queenan of an impossibly pretentious and utterly nonsensical academic tome on the deeper meaning of that important subject, Harpo Marx.
As someone who came out of the humanities departments--I have a degree in philosophy--I assure you that this sort of thing goes on all the time, and your tuition dollars are paying for it. Obviously, there is no reason why they should pay for it, so eventually they won't.
Do you want to know the actual function of humanities education in the job market? For most people, humanities education is a kind of finishing school. It is less about acquiring useful skills or knowledge than it is about learning mannerisms and etiquette, teaching students to act and talk and write like a member of the educated class. In My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle offers Henry Higgins five shillings to teach her to "talk more genteel-like" so she can get a better class of job. Now we do that with four years of college education, at $30,000 per year.
The ten year path through the Great Books is essentially one huge Humanities course.  At the end of it, I'm confident that I'll have some of that polish, and also a better feel for things like citizenship, science, religion and the big questions like 'why are we here and what do we do about it'.  There will (sadly) be no degree handed out or even a certificate that I can use for some future employer.  All of the benefits (and I think they will be real!) will be non-commercial.  That's ok with me and I'm not making anyone else pay for it, so no one else should mind either. 
But if college really has drifted too far from the tasks that it should do, it will be replaced.  Should be replaced.  If the internet can help us along to the something better, good.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Honor of the Prince

One of the most surprising parts of 'The Prince' was a point Machiavelli makes about 'keeping faith':
Every one admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft and in the end have overcome those how have relied on their word.
When we select a leader in modern days, we prize integrity.  We want our leaders to be men and women of their word.  But Machiavelli sees this a bit differently and I wonder if he is right to do so.  If a modern President prized their integrity over the health of the state, we would think them dangerously foolish.  If, say, a President made a handshake agreement with an opposing head of state and then later discovered that the agreement would lead to some danger, we would expect them to break that agreement.
Of course things are different now.  If a Renaissance prince got a reputation for dishonesty, other leaders would be more wary of them.  Here in the United States we switch up leaders every four or eight years.  In some sense we continually wipe the slate blank.  On the other hand, nations don't forget double crosses quickly, so maybe I have the math wrong on this one.
One other modern wrinkle is that a leader needs the reputation for integrity to actually gain leadership.  If the people don't think that a leader will stay committed to their campaign promises, they won't be elected.  And leaders will find the nuts and bolts of modern political machinery difficult if no one trusts them. 
Still, after high office has been obtained, just how highly should we prize the desire to 'keep the faith'?

Friday, May 18, 2012

War and Necessity

This morning my four year old daughter was asking to watch a Christmas show on the TV.  I told her no, that we would wait until at least November before watching Christmas shows.  May is too early.  She asked what holiday is in May and I told her Memorial Day.  She wanted to know what that's about so I told her it is when we honor the soldiers who have fought in wars for us. 
She quickly told me that wars are terrible things and I agreed with her.  But, I told her, sometimes they are necessary.  Of course she asked 'why?'.  Well, that's a complicated subject, especially when talking to a four year old so I tried to boil it down to something simple.  I told her that sometimes people and countries do terrible things and sometimes the only way to stop them is by going to war.  I mentally prepared to figure out which terrible things to tell her about but fortunately she let it go at that.  I want her to be a little older at least before she finds out about things like the Holocaust or the Rape of Nanking. 
Machiavelli also wrote of the 'necessity of war' though I doubt he was as squeamish as I am.  He noted that the Romans:
foreseeing troubles, dealt with them at once, and, even to avoid a war, would not let them come to a head, for they knew that war is not to be avoided, but is only to be put off to the advantage of others
Roman ambition would involve wars.  The generals and Senate knew this.  More importantly, so did the citizens. 
A bit later, Machiavelli is writing about one of the King Louis' of France:
And if any one should say: "King Louis yielded the Romagna to Alexander and the kingdom to Spain to avoid war," I answer for the reasons give about that a blunder ought never to be perpetrated to avoid war, because it is not to be avoided, but is only to be deferred to your disadvantage.
I wonder about this.  Wars are caused by real disputes between states.  (I'm convinced of this and always annoyed when pseudo-psychology about 'boys and guns' is given as a war reason.)  How often are those disputes really settled peacefully?  If two countries claim the same land or resources, is war really inevitable?  And if it is, then should states hold back until there really is no other choice or should the simply wait until they have the advantage?  I know what the modern answer is, but is it true, or simply misplaced idealism?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Machiavelli and the Mob

As Machiavelli talks about the relationship between a 'prince' and his state, it's easy to wonder how relevant his instructions are in a time of representative democracy.  After all, if a modern leader becomes too unlikeable, a replacement is found.  Probably the same deal if they become feared.  A modern ruler must have some level of popularity.  Not so for a prince who can rule at least in part with an iron fist. 
But there are some modern day institutions that more closely fit the states that Machiavelli wrote of.  Steve pointed out that as modern corporations take each other over, they have to worry about some of the same complications that occur in 'The Prince'.  The one that came to me was a bit more sinister: the mob.  Consider this passage:
Upon this, one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.
If you read that in a Godfather novel or heard it in a gangster movie, it wouldn't stand out.  He also mentions rubbing out the whole family of the deposed ruler, to elminate challenges.  (This rule doesn't really transfer well to corporations!)
Now, I'm not suggesting that Machiavelli ever intended his instructions to be used for crime.  His manner seems to suggest that the actions of a prince were above the moral questions that mere subjects must deal with.  And I'm not sure that this kind of reasoning wasn't already well practiced either.  Machiavelli was shrewd and observant.  He relied a great deal on history to tell him what worked and what didn't. 
I can't help but wonder though, how much influence did he really have on the mafia?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

More on Machiavelli

I'm going to start this with a general mea culpa.  Last month I thought that posting might be light due to our new arrival.  It might have been a bit less than usual but it wasn't too bad.  I was still able to get process info from things that I'd read before Leo showed up.  What I didn't expect is that he'd tromp all over my Machiavelli reading.  I read in snips and snatches.  I made notes of phrases that popped out and that's what I'll blog about.  By all means, feel free to correct me if I missed some connections or misread something! 

Machiavelli recognizes several different types of states and has mechanisms for dealing with each differently.  In some ways the Prince begs for a flow chart.  'Is the state hereditary or new?'  And then you'd follow the arrow to the next box.  That kind of thing.  (Google can't find any such thing, which frankly astounds me.  If my graphic skills were better I would fix this!)  The entire work is a very frank outline towards securing power.  In that way it simply could not be more different than the more idealistic works that we've read before.
Right away Machiavelli apologizes for daring to offer advice to Great Men and I really liked the way he put it:
Nor do I hold with those who regard it as a presumption if a man of low and humble condition dare to discuss and settle the concerns of princes; because, just as those who draw landscapes place themselves below in the plain to contemplate the nature of the mountains and of lofty places, and in order to contemplate the plains place themselves upon high mountains, even so to understand the nature of the people it needs to be a prince, and to understand that of princes it needs to be of the people.
What a lovely way of putting it.  He understood very well that Great Men are dangerous and he was better off with a little flattery protection.  His previous experience, being tortured, probably made him especially careful.  It was kind of a rough time!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Prince - Machiavelli

'The Prince' surprised me.  I'd always thought that the term 'Machiavellian' was somewhat synonymous with 'scheming'.  Not so, or at least not as much I thought.  'The Prince' isn't really about political maneuvering as it is power politics. 
Machiavelli lived in turbulent times. Italy was not united, but was composed of city states that were sometimes warring.  The Pope was also an active power and the Italian peninsula was invaded by outsiders, such as France.  None of it was stable and many rulers had struggled with how to rule newly conquered states.  Machiavelli decided to study why some rulers succeeded and others failed. 
He set up various categories of which princes needed to pay attention.  He talked about how to select friends and how to keep the people happy.  He talked about how different states need different approaches.  To make his points he selected both historical and contemporary examples.  (The historical stuff is interesting but my lack of knowledge of 15th century Italy made his contemporary stuff confusing.) 
The entire book is written in 'how-to' style.  I'm sure that various heads of state found it very enlightening way back then.  It's easy to picture them publicly denouncing it while privately studying it very hard.  'The Prince' was controversial because it moved away from an idealistic style of governance to a more 'real-politck' style.  Might as its own virtue, rather than just in service of right.  
A very interesting read.  I'll blog about various pieces of it in the next few weeks.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Biography of Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli was born in Florence Italy in 1469, the son of an attorney.  The time period was a rough one in Italy.  At the time the peninsula was dominated by warring city states.  Also, and I don't think there is a modern equivalent, the Pope went to war to acquire power.  There was also conflict between the Medici and Borgia families.  In other words, there was lots of conflict and no war was simple.
Machiavelli gained some authority, notably at one point he was in charge of the militia of Florence.  This helped shape some of his opinions on the value of mercenaries, no doubt.  He was also active in diplomatic works.  In short, he came by his views of the state by experience.
He was apparently a playwright of some account by history remembers him for 'The Prince', our piece for this month.  'The Prince' was written to one of the Medici family and became both controversial and well read.  He has been memorialized with the adjective 'Machiavellian'. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Philosophy and Science

Interesting piece from NPR regarding on ongoing spat about how science and philosophy should interact.  This specific fight has to do with explaining what happened before the Big Bang, but really the exact subject is almost beside the point.  I thought this bit was interesting:
Concepts like hidden dimensions of reality (string theory) or hidden infinite possible parallel universes (the multiverse) are radical revisions of the very concept of reality. Since detailed contact with experimental data might be decades away, theorists have relied mainly on mathematical consistency and "aesthetics" to guide their explorations. In light of these developments, it seems absurd to dismiss philosophy as having nothing to do with their endeavors.
Make no mistake, philosophy (and the philosophy of science) are not about doing science. Instead, these fields ask entirely different kinds of questions. They explore the relation between the possible and the actual, the correct links between an argument and it's conclusions or the tension between theoretical models and claims of evidence for those models.
Carbon-nanotube physicists are so deep within the traditional modes of empirical (i.e., data-driven) scientific investigation that they can happily ignore what goes on in the halls of philosophy. But as Krauss' example shows, cosmologists can push so hard and so far at the boundaries of fundamental concepts they cross over and fall prey to their own unspoken philosophical biases and misconceptions.
One thing that I've noticed again and again from very smart people is that they can sometimes develop a kind of tunnel vision regarding what they know and what they don't.  It's as if they think that once you hit a certain level of smart you must know simply everything worth knowing.  One of the benefits of a broader, more classical education is you can't help but have your horizons expanded.  You also see how some of the very cream of the crop of humanity were sometimes spectacularly wrong.  This should give one pause, and perhaps some humility. . .
(I can't help but think that this same argument, with slightly different terms, was commonplace all the way back in Plato's academy.)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Author Timeline

Aristophanes 446 - 386
Plato 424? - 348?
Aristotle 384 - 322

Plutarch 46 - 120
Gospel of Matthew, Acts of the Apostles (around the end of the first century)
St. Augistine 354 - 430
Machiavelli 1469 - 1527
Rabelais 1494 - 1553
Montaigne 1533 - 1592
Shakespeare 1564 - 1616
Locke 1632 - 1704
Rousseau 1712 - 1778
Gibbon 1737 - 1794
Declaration of Independence - 1776
The Constitution of the US - 1787
Federalist Papers 1787 -1788
Smith 1723 - 1790
Marx/Engles 1818 - 1883/1820 - 1895

As you can see, this is a big jump forward in time.  Not to worry, Machiavelli spends plenty of time on the Greeks and the Romans.  I wonder who our first author will be who doesn't mention them at all?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May Reading


Machiavelli: 'The Prince' Kindle/Nook/Google

This is the ninth piece of the year.  Half way through!  Numerically, at least.