Some writers appeal to one or another of our vanities — good taste, superior intelligence, deep insight, clear understanding, high morality. We may know what they’re doing, but we agree so readily with their assessment of us that we let them get away with it. Their books are very popular, but they’re not often very important.
A few writers are different. They are contrary, curmudgeonly, and confrontational. They challenge our assumptions and ridicule our illusions. We may suspect that they’re telling us at least some of the truth, but we don’t like hearing it put quite so bluntly. Their books are less popular, but they’re often very instructive.
John Gray belongs to the second group. He may be the contemporary leader of this smaller, more annoying cohort.
As he did in the terse Black Mass and the flamboyant Straw Dogs, in his latest work Gray doesn’t proclaim that the emperor of rational humanism has no clothes. Rather, he repeats that humanism’s new clothes look uncomfortably like religion’s old ones. The cloth has been rewoven, but the vestments are still recognizable in their new style.
It seemed like such a good combination — science, my fascination in retirement; and Shakespeare, the focus of my teaching for more than 30 years.
Alas, The Science of Shakespeare is a disappointment.
Most of TSofS is a competent and standard summary of the beginnings of modern science in the 17th century, despite its tendency to treat some of the tenuous ways that the emerging sciences might have influenced Shakespeare with the same attention and respect as it gives to the well-established, foundational science of the day. And what there is of Shakespeare scholarship is too often admittedly and excessively speculative, with an inevitable loss of credibility.
Joshua Greene has been espousing his theory of “dual morality” for some time, but it’s only now that he’s put all of his ideas in popular book form. And this time he’s paired his conception of “automatic” and “manual” moral modes with extended advocacy for a form of utilitarianism that he calls “deep pragmatism.”
Given the clarity and directness with which he makes his case, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them was worth the wait.
What is dissent? What distinguishes it from disagreement? Can violence be part of legitimate dissent? Can groups dissent, or is true dissent always an individual act?
These are some of the key questions asked in Collins and Skover’s On Dissent: Its Meaning in America, an engrossing discussion that ably unpacks the contents of dissent — and the intents of those who engage in it, and of the powerful forces that are enjoined to tolerate it.
Having started, hated, and never finished A. C. Grayling’s The Good Book, A Humanist Bible, I was well-primed to dislike The God Argument.
It’s not that I disagree with Grayling’s version of humanist morality, even less so with his general anti-metaphysical views. Not in the least. It’s simply that I consider The Good Book one of the most ill-considered wastes of paper — and the reader’s time — in recent memory.
In The Evolution of God, Robert Wright makes the familiar modern argument that monotheism evolved from the earlier anthropomorphic gods of polytheism. While Wright makes frequent mention of the tension between the rational and the supernatural, his Biblical scholarship does not take the step taken by Colin Wells in “How Did God Get Started?” (Arion, Fall 2010).
Wright focuses on the influence religion has had on reason, while Wells argues for a shift in paradigm, making the case that monotheism was the natural result of religion’s need to “defend itself” against the challenges posed by a new rational explanation of the universe.
This is the most profound existential question most of us ever ask. But it may be the wrong question, or even no question at all. After all, if “I am the one asking the question” is the most reasonable answer, and it seems to me that it is, have I given an answer at all? It may be that the only appropriate and answerable question in a purely material world is “What is ‘I’?”