From Homer to the medieval romances, the tradition of telling tales aloud to an audience around a fire, either read from a book or performed from memory by a bard, has long been a part of the Western literary tradition, as has the wide variety of tones in which these tales can be told, from the uplifting and meditative of an epic like The Odyssey to the raucous and crowd-pleasing Miller’s Tale of Chaucer.
In a previous visit to the Reading Room, I made a case for The Arabian Nights as an anti-epic embodying the commercial values of medieval and early modern Islamic silk road merchants. Today, I want to talk a bit about the actual representations of merchants and commercial culture in the work.
The Scottish Enlightenment is a vital part of the history of liberty. The works of Hutcheson, Carmichael, and Smith are foundational to the discussion of a free society. But the Scottish conversation about liberty did not end in the 18th century. Here are three Scottish writers who engage with questions of liberty, education, and responsibility, and whose work is well worth exploring.
On April 6, 1970, Time magazine published a special issue devoted to “Black America 1970,” which provided a sweeping survey of contemporary Black life in terms of residential patterns, medicine, psychological and sociological issues, the treatment of race in the press, religion, sports, business, education, and the arts. The issue’s final item was a riveting essay by Ralph Ellison, “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks.” The “vision of a lily-white America” was a ”fantasy” that Ellison linked to its twin, “the illusion of secession.” What ties these two ideas together for Ellison is that they each “become operative whenever the nation grows weary of the struggle toward the ideal of American democratic equality.”
This month’s featured birthday anniversary is the Anglo-American author and political activist Thomas Paine. Best known for his tremendously influential Rights of Man, he wrote many other important books and pamphlets, while also being a tireless supporter of the American and French Revolutions.
“Of making many books there is no end,” said Ecclesiastes, but there have long been limits placed on their number by technology. The earliest books were scrolls, sheets of papyrus, vellum, or parchment glued together into a long single strip and rolled into cylinders, one at a time. In the first century of the common era, the Roman poet Martial extolled the virtues of the codex, in which pages were bound together along one edge, essentially the form of the modern book. Paper was first invented in China in the second century BCE, and the technology spread to the Islamic world in the eighth century CE. Muslims brought papermaking to Europe during the eleventh century. Vellum and parchment continued to be used for important documents for centuries to come, but its relative cheapness gave paper a strong advantage for most works.
The adaptation of The Wheel of Time on Amazon Prime is probably one of the best examples of the current media trend of adaptation, and its reception by fans of the original book series is equally indicative of the negatives and positives that generally accompany this trend.
Valentine’s Day is all but guaranteed to inspire some kind of case of the feels. Some of us love the hearts, flowers, and the unbridled romance of it. Some of us can’t stand it and flee like a vampire exposed to light. Some of us see it primarily as the day before the chocolate aisle at the grocery store gets marked down 50%. Whatever sort of feels you may be having today, the Online Library of Liberty has reading recommendations to get you through them.
Sex scandals are rarely just about sex. From the Mary Anne Clarke affair of 1809 to the recent trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, the real issue is power. What are the elite really doing? How do they abuse their position and wealth at the expense of the vulnerable?
In our last visit with Plato, we considered what insights he has regarding free speech and cancel culture. Another topic one can’t help but read about these days is the need for psychological balance as we pursue happiness and fulfillment. Countless op-eds and magazine articles have bemoaned the dilemma: If I work 80 hours a week at the firm, I’ll make six figures, but can’t see my kids’ little-league games and dance recitals. How can I have balance? A point Socrates and Plato made repeatedly is that you can make your life better if you have different priorities. Internal harmony is literally the centerpiece of Plato’s theory of justice.
The Buddha (Sanskrit for “The Enlightened One”) is the title given to Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BCE). His life and teachings formed the foundations of Buddhism, one of the world’s major religions. The Buddha’s biography and teachings together constitute a path toward liberation; specifically liberation from the pain and suffering of life, and especially liberation from the endless cycle of rebirths that constitute one of the main features of Vedic religion.
Despite persistent cultural insistence that February is the shortest month, it is obvious to even the most casual observer that it is, in fact, the longest. Its 28 (and sometimes 29) days of damp, cold, enveloping gray mushiness last for approximately eternity.
As with the Ancient Greeks and their myths, so now with our modern superheroes there are many retellings of new and different and even contradicting stories about our present-day mythic heroes, some good, many mediocre, and several quite bad. Yet the newest Spiderman movie is perhaps one of the best of these retellings, both for its well thought out themes and for daring to draw upon the earlier Spiderman films featuring Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, not Tom Holland, in the titular role.
In volume 3 of the original edition of the Encyclopédie, edited by Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, is an entry, ‘Trading Company’ (French: Compagnie de Commerce), written by Véron de Forbonnais (1722-1800), a leading eighteenth century French economist. The second half of the (1753) entry is, as Forbonnais explicitly notes, mostly a cut and paste job from a translation of chapter iii of one of Josiah Child’s treatises entitled, Trade, and interest of money considered.
The Law and the Lady is a much neglected Victorian legal gothic novel. Written by one of Charles Dickens's closest friends, Wilkie Collins, the novel is a forerunner of today's popular detective and legal thriller genres. In fact, Collins is widely considered to have invented the detective novel with his classic tale, The Moonstone, which T.S. Eliot called "the first, the longest, and the best of English detective novels....in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe."
Beyond his arguments for the right to trade and for the Sea being open to all who seek to travel for trade, a good deal of The Free Sea is devoted to countering various particular arguments that the Portugals might advance for their monopolizing trade with the East Indies. Grotius’ refutations of these arguments further reflect his proto-liberalism.
This month’s featured birthday anniversary is the English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon. A key figure in the transition from the Renaissance to the Early Modern Period, he is widely regarded as one of the most important early proponents of the scientific method and inductive reasoning, and a foe of the older medieval scholastic deductive methodology. For this, he is sometimes called the Father of Empiricism.
According to Grotius, “God gave all things not to this man or that but to mankind . . .” (Free Sea, 22) However, it is clear that Grotius does not mean that all persons are joint-owners of the raw natural world in the sense that any individual’s use of any portion of the natural world requires every joint-owner’s consent. Rather, all components of the natural world are given to mankind in the sense that, at least to begin with, each of these natural components is morally available for the use of any human agent (or association of human agents). In this sense, the actual original condition of natural material is being unowned.
Basil Brown: Is that why you want to dig, Mrs. Pretty? Tales of buried treasure?Edith Pretty: My interest in archaeology began like yours, when I was scarcely old enough to hold a trowel. My childhood home was built on a Cistercian convent. I helped my father excavate the apse.Basil Brown: That speaks, don’t it? The past.--The Dig (2021)“I need to find a new place to search. All we pull up these days is litter and ring pulls. This is the land of the Saxons. I want to discover where they buried their warriors and their kings.--The Detectorists, Episode One, Season One, (2014)
On the first anniversary of the Capitol riots, I find myself reflecting on Shakespeare’s various depictions of popular insurrections. He devoted a full act of his first history play, which we know as Henry the Sixth, Part 2, to Jack Cade’s 1450 revolt. Turning later to Roman history, he depicted similar insurrections in both Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. Between writing those two tragedies, he also seems to have contributed a scene to a revised staging of a multi-authored play on Thomas More, the only surviving theatrical manuscript believed to be in Shakespeare’s own hand. In it, More confronts and disperses a popular insurrection—as it happens an anti-immigration riot.
In early 1603 an armed merchant ship of the Dutch East India Company (the VOC) attacked and captured the Portuguese ship Sta. Catarina in the Straits of Singapore. The south-east Asian spices and products carried by that ship were sold in Amsterdam for an enormous sum. Due to public controversy about the legitimacy of this seizure and sale, in 1604 the VOC recruited the 21 year-old Hugo Grotius to supply a justification of its actions. Grotius, who was already renowned for his literary and legal learning, produced a lengthy manuscript, De Jure Praedae Commentarius (Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty) which remained unpublished until it was rediscovered in 1864. However, a slightly revised version of the Commentary’s twelfth chapter was published in 1609 as Mare Liberum.