Reading Room Archives

Blaise Pascal Bets It All on God

In some ways, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) is a curious figure to include in this series on the Age of Enlightenment. He lived in the seventeenth century, the Age of Science, and so joins Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, and Thomas Hobbes who lived and worked well before the eighteenth century, but pioneered dominant ideas, especially methodologies, of the Enlightenment and decisively shaped Enlightenment thinking.

Hume’s History of England and The House of Dudley: Part 1

This three-part blog series investigates the treatment of the Tudor Dudley family by enlightenment philosopher and historian David Hume in his History of England (vols 3 and 4), comparing his accounts to recent research on the topic. This comparison is not meant to expose the veracity or falsity of Hume’s claims, but rather is an attempt to highlight choices that Hume made in his presentation of history. In doing so, we see Hume’s emphasis on historical and constitutional discontinuity through unintended consequences, the importance of justice as a social unifier, and the prevalence of public opinion as a director of historical events. 

Measure for Measure: Duke Vincentio as Impartial Spectator

A trusted legal system with recognized property rights is one of, if not the, most critical precondition for national wealth accumulation, causing musings over private and public interests to quickly seep from economic into legal thought. Adam Smith’s approach to equilibrating public and private interests is instructive and, I suggest, emphatically Shakespearean.

Beethoven and Napoleon: Clash of the Titans

No one in Europe could be indifferent to Napoleon’s ascent. He was its greatest liberator or its greatest threat. Beethoven, who despised ruling classes, was wildly enthusiastic about him. His manuscript for the Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” initially had “Buonaparte” on the title page. A decade later, one of his most popular works would celebrate Wellington’s victory over France.

René Descartes Dreams the “Philosopher’s Dream”—And Launches Modern Philosophy

In winter 1619, the man who became the “founder of modern philosophy,” the first great philosophical challenge to centuries of Christianized Aristotelian Scholasticism, found himself caught by winter in the little town of Ulm, near Munich. René Descartes (1596–1650) had been returning to the Catholic army of the Duke of Bavaria, recently crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Niko Nikoladze: Liberal Nationalism, the Constitution of the United States and International Law

In 1865, when he was a student, young Niko Nikoladze met Karl Marx in London. The latter offered him the opportunity to be the representative of the First International in Transcaucasia, which Nikoladze delicately refused. 

Shylock on Rats and Rational Choice

Written less than a decade after Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice explores many of the same themes.

Homer’s Odyssey: Blindness, Allegory, and Insight in the House of Hades

Homer’s House of Hades is a dark, unsightly place, but is part of the invisible nature of Hades due to the fact that one might understand it not literally, but allegorically? Let us look to the opening lines of Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey with its proto-Baroque contrasts of light and dark for insight.

Isaac Newton’s Principia and Life after It

Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica was Newton’s historic achievement. It altered the course of science from that day to this. In summer 1684, Newton began this work, partially stimulated by a visit from the British astronomer Edmond Halley. Halley, too, had been pondering the problem of orbital dynamics. What he discovered during his visit was that Newton had solved the problem but discussed it with no one for two decades because he knew his mathematics was slightly off.

OLL's July Birthday: Alexis de Tocqueville (July 29, 1805 to April 16, 1859)

July’s OLL Birthday Essay is in honor of the French historian, political scientist, and politician, Count Alexis Charles Henri Maurice Clérel de Tocqueville (July 29, 1805 to April 16, 1859), better known simply as Alexis de Tocqueville.  His writings, especially his famous La Démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America, four volumes 1835-1840), explored the nature of democracy, and how it could be controlled and tempered to preserve and promote individual liberty.

True Nobility: The Wife of Bath’s knight from The Canterbury Tales

“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” spends a significant amount of time discussing the qualifications of nobility. In her monologue to the knight, the old woman characterizes gentility as a grace granted by God shown through virtuous deeds. This view contradicts the traditional definition of ancestral nobility. 

Scholasticism: How a Philosophical Monopoly Succumbs to New Ideas

How do countries and cultures evolve from domination by one philosophy, one set of beliefs, one intellectual and academic establishment, to a radically different one?

Bruno Leoni and the (Still Ongoing) ‘Semantic Revolution’ Against Liberty

What does language have to tell us about our daily politics? Can the use of specific terminologies influence public debates?

Madame de Stael: From the Liberty Fund Rare Book Room

This first edition of an English translation of Lady Blennerhasset's Madame de Stael: Her Friends and Her Influence in Politics and Literature, which comes to the Liberty Fund archives through the Hamburger collection, seems a particularly appropriate book to highlight on le quatorze juillet as de Stael is best known for her writings on the French Revolution.

Symbolism in Homer's Odyssey: On the Blindness of Polyphemos

During Book IX of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus tells the so-called “cyclops episode.” Odysseus gets himself into trouble looking for a "guest-gift" from a man with a savage and wild nature, who also happens to be a giant, man-eating cyclops named Polyphemos. This cyclops eats six of Odysseus' men, famously believes Odysseus when he calls himself ou tis* or Nobody, and is eventually physically blinded by Odysseus before calling down a curse on him after Odysseus reveals his name in a fit of hubris. 

Isaac Newton: History’s Greatest Mad (Angry?) Scientist

There exist many striking portraits of Isaac Newton (by then, Sir Isaac Newton) because during his lifetime his work arrested the world’s attention. Knowing something of Newton’s life, especially his early years, one gazes on these portraits seeking signs of genius and what the Encyclopedia Britannica—to take one standard reference—unapologetically characterizes as “psychosis.”

Odysseus's Descent into the Underworld

Approximately halfway through his journey home from Troy, Odysseus is told that he must descend into the Underworld. Curiously, when Odysseus is told this, his first reaction is to cry (Ody.10.496-500). One might interpret this as indicating Odysseus’s simple fear of death because truly "No one has ever yet in a black ship gone all the way to Hades" (Ody.10.502). 

Abigail and John Adams Disagree Over the Rights of Women

In a letter dated March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams announces to John that spring has lightened her mood. “I feel a gaiety de Coar to which before I was a stranger.” Her light mood did not prevent her from raising heavy topics, however. 

Benjamin Franklin and Slavery, Part Two

In 1757, the Pennsylvania Assembly selected Benjamin Franklin to serve as the colony’s agent in London to moderate the Penn Proprietor’s harsh treatment of the colony. While there, he helped the Associates of Dr. Bray, a charity concerned with the education of Black children in the colonies, select sites for schools. 

Benjamin Franklin and Slavery, Part One

As was the case with many in colonial America, Benjamin Franklin’s life intersected with the issue of slavery in many, and at times contradictory, ways. Franklin was a slave-owner beginning around 1735 until 1781, when George, whom he had acquired in a debt settlement in 1765, died. His newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, carried advertisements announcing slaves for sale.

The Bill of Rights

The ink was barely dry on the Bill of Rights when the U.S. Congress began attempting to restrict speech it might disagree with. 

OLL's June Birthday: Wilhelm von Humboldt (June 22, 1767 – April 8, 1835)

June’s OLL Birthday Essay goes out to Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand von Humboldt, generally known to history as Wilhelm von Humboldt.  A true polymath, he was a diplomat, philosopher, poet, linguist and anthropologist, who made crucial contributions to pedagogical theory and political philosophy.

Benjamin Tucker Today

Benjamin Tucker’s April 1, 1882 issue of Liberty had a few things to say about our day’s concerns, such as prisons, Silicon Valley Bank, and immigrants’ impacts on wages.

James Watt: Industrial Revolution Spark Plug and Enlightenment “New Philosopher”

Was James Watt (1736–1819), born in Greenock, Scotland, a mechanical engineer, businessman, chemist, and inventor, also a “new philosopher”—the name that Enlightenment intellectuals adopted?