Friday, September 27, 2013

This post is boring and long and kinda hard to relate to

I've mentioned before that I think that crowd-sourced reviews of old books may signal the end of civilization. This was in response to reviews of Emile, which tend to say, in summarized paraphrase: "I read the part about Sophie and promptly lit this book on fire." Now, admittedly, we might be relieved that at least the modern, non-academic reader had a response it, and that it was not overly technical. Most early modern texts produce one of two kinds of crowd-sourced reviews - those written by technicians who outline the entire argument for you, and those written by lazers who wish to inform you that this book was very long, difficult, and boring. Mostly boring. Some reviewers of the latter party do admit that the book is "important," but this consideration does not apparently move them to work harder at it.

For example, Locke's Essay:
"Okay, I like philosophy, but everything has limits! I had to read this book for an assignment I have, and well, it was...weird? John Locke kept on saying something and after some pages going all against to what he previously said. His opinions? I don't know if I agree, I was too absorbed trying to make sense of what he was actually saying. And I had to keep notes, so yeah..."

Grotius's On the Rights of War and Peace:
"This is a painful read, but there's worthwhile information in there. I don't know. I'm very ambivalent toward it."

There are, in addition, a plural number of reviews of More's Utopia accusing More of being a Marxist propagandist. A reviewer of Mill's Autobiography seems to be under the impression that Mill was "admittedly not very smart, but diligent," and also that he was an American. And it goes on. Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind that he was charmed by the habit of American students to take great books at face value, naively assuming they are just regular books and their authors just the folks next door, like "Mr. Aristotle." Well, here is the flipside of this democratic leveling. Mr. More is a Marxist, and his book "more an insight into the minds of Renaissance-era Englishmen than anything useful today as a philosophical statement."

But, I have decided that I will not stand idly by as civilization is destroyed by careless democratic readers. No, I will fight them with my own brand of careless democratic reviews, beginning with Grotius. What follows is a review of On the Rights of War and Peace, by Miss Self-Important, democrat:
De Jure Belli ac Pacis means On the Justice of War and Peace in Greek. This is a kinda weird book, as far as books go, but pretty worthwhile in the end. The plot starts out real slow at first, and the characters are distant and hard to relate to. You really have to get used to Grotius' style, which is a little outdated because he was a Roman, and he references tons of Roman and other examples to bolster his arguments, sometimes even like 20 pages of examples, and by the end, you're like, OK I get it dude, Jesus said it was ok to have wars, or whatever. This book is really long, but I feel like in olden times, people maybe just wrote longer books, and you have to be patient about that because they say a lot of good stuff when you give them a chance.
Grotius' main point is that there is a natural law in the world which governs even how countries have wars with each other, even though while they're having the war, it seems like they might not be governed by any laws at all, so many people have argued that there is no such law. But this natural law is not based on God or anything subjective or controversial like that (although God is cool with it). It's based on two things: the universally observable human impulse to defend himselves when he is under attack, and the equally universal fact that humans are sociable and want to live together. The first part justifies why war is justified in the first place, because we have a right to defend ourselves when we're attacked. But the second is really cool, because it limits the extent to which we can do the first part, so that we can't just do whatever we want in self-defense, like Mr. Tom Hobbes says thousands of years later, but we can only defend ourself to the degree that our defense promotes sociability, or maintains our society as a whole. That still means we can do a lot of badass stuff in war though.
I'm not sure if I buy Grotius ultimately, because it's really hard to make countries follow laws when they are in wars and there is no way to hold them to the laws, or they feel existential about a particular war and conclude that they have to do whatever it takes to win it or be totally crushed, like what happened to the land of Carthage in Grotius' time. But for the most part, I feel like Grotius is really good to read when you get tired of some of the edgier authors in this genre like Bodin and Hobbes, because he has a more moderate idea about what a country's self-interest is, and thinks that laws about contract and property can be extrapolated from within a country to govern relations among countries. Especially for people who care about international law and human rights nowadays, it's really important for them to justify that without relying on different subjective religions, and if you think that Grotius' justifications are not that good, you need to think about whether you have any better ones.
True, it's not very comprehensive. But, by posting such reviews, can I persuade democrats that, since other democrats, even outright idiots, managed to read and digest the books they were so bored by and pre-emptively jaded about, they can do it too? That the baseline expectation for even writing a review is reading the book and having at least three thoughts about it, one of which can be descriptive? It's kind of deceitful, sure, but could it be effective? Or is making these books seem easy and accessible only going to exacerbate the turpitude?

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