Reading Room Archives

In The Reading Room with Aristotle

In several previous columns, I have talked about why we might continue to find value in Plato.  But all the reasons why it’s worth taking seriously some of Plato’s insights apply as well to his pupil Aristotle.  Aristotle came to Plato’s Academy when he was 18, and studied there for 20 years.  Obviously over that long a time period, their relationship evolved from master and pupil to something more like colleagues.   They agreed on some matters, but sharply disagreed on others, and there are methodological differences as well, so after Plato’s death the Academy was run by more orthodox Platonists, while Aristotle would later found his own school, the Lyceum.

John Jay: Legal and Constitutional Framer

John Jay (1745–1829) was one of the most significant members of the founding generation, but his reputation hasn’t kept pace with that reality. Most Americans, if they wrack their brains, might be able to come up with vague memories of the Jay Treaty, his contributions to the Federalist Papers, or his place on the Supreme Court.

Unpersuaded; or, Ten Ways to Lose an Austen Reader

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a reader in possession of a Jane Austen novel must be in want of a film adaptation.  In fact, such readers want many film adaptations, if not to revisit Austen's world then to have the pleasure of explaining how the filmmakers are more clueless than Cher Horowitz.Such is the case with Netflix's recent adaptation of Persuasion, which illustrates ten ways to lose your Austen audience's admiration.

Gouverneur Morris on the Word "Liberty": An Empty Sound?

Is it enough for a nation to have a constitution purporting to guarantee liberty and justice? Gouverneur Morris would say emphatically no: a consistent theme in his writings is that a constitution must be suited to the people it governs. As noted in the last post, he understood human nature, and the conflicting interests that agitate society.  

"What ‘Severance’ Viewers Get Wrong About Infantilizing Office Perks"

A theme in the new TV show Severance is how "perks" serve as incentives at the office.  There are four "data refiners" working in the basement of secretive Lumon Industries. They are supposed to behave according to the corporate handbook. There are punishments for breaking rules, but for now I will only focus on the carrots used to elicit effort.  Refiner Dylan is particularly avid in his pursuit of the prizes for getting work done. One of the funny lines in the show is when he brags about the large number of finger traps he has earned. 

The Written Legacy of Gouverneur Morris: Constitutional Wisdom We Cannot Afford to Forget

We the People. It is a phrase that shows up everywhere, on the banners of protestors on both sides of an issue, as the name of an expletive-laden song by Kid Rock, in the title of many books, many art exhibitions, and, of course, on t-shirts.  Who wrote "We the People of the United States of America"?  And what are we--we the people of the United States of America -- missing out on if we don't know about that man and what he has to teach us about being Americans, and what he meant when he wrote those words?  The short answer: a great deal. 

Abigail Adams Argues for More “Learned Women”

In the previous post on Abigail Adams, I noted that she was a staunch advocate of traditional American liberties and showed great fortitude during tough times.But Abigail was no mere defender of the status quo. No insignificant amount of her attraction to the cause for independence is the prospect of fashioning new laws. With keen anticipation, she wondered what "code of Laws will be Established, how shall we be govern'd so as to retain our Liberties?”

The Unimpeachable Politics of The Beggar's Opera

John Gay's The Beggar's Opera took London by storm in 1728, when it was staged 62 times in succession. It remains a classic for many reasons, starting with its humor. In the first act, Mrs. Peachum, upon hearing that her daughter has married the dashing highwayman "Captain" Macheath, exclaims, "Away, hussy! Hang your husband, and be dutiful."  

Abigail Adams’ Patriotism

A Gallop poll shows a worrisome decline in patriotism among younger Americans. A mere half of Americans 35 and younger report being proud of their country. A generational shift is occurring that will have far-reaching consequences for the future of America if young Americans aren’t sure that their country has worth and esteem. How can America have a future if young Americans aren’t proud?

Founding Mother Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton...Remember Me!

When the wife, mother or sister of a famous man is invoked, the first inclination is to wonder how that woman might have influenced her celebrated male counterpart. It is a reasonable question. The next question is whether that woman is worth remembering on her own, without her prominent male counterpart. That, too, can be a substantive exploration. So, when Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton is recalled, we might pause and wonder, “Is the most significant feature of her life that she was married to Alexander Hamilton?” “Is that what we should remember about her?” “Would we remember her without Alexander?”

In the Reading Room with Plato and Feminism

In previous columns I’ve discussed some reasons why there are insightful contributions from Plato that contemporary audiences might benefit from thinking about. Here’s another: his feminism. For the most part we don’t think of the world of 2500 years ago as especially demonstrative of gender parity. And for good reason: in most cultures of that time, certainly in the Greek world, women lacked most of the prerogatives of men, and were regarded by many as not even being capable of complex thought, let alone running a business or holding political office. This seems to suggest some cognitive dissonance: in the pantheon of Greek gods, the goddesses were as capable as their male counterparts at scheming and maneuvering. Athena was in fact the goddess of wisdom – why would the divine embodiment of wisdom be a woman if actual women were irrational and incapable of becoming wise? Leaving the divine realm aside, the idea of real-world women wielding power was also not unknown. Queen Artemesia, for instance, was known as an effective and intelligent leader and naval commander. One suspects that although there were commonly-known examples of women displaying the qualities they were purported not to have, their subordinate status was nevertheless the rule regardless of the absence of good reasons.

Mind Your Manners: Mercy Otis Warren on the Character of the American People

Why should we care about Mercy Otis Warren’s political writings today? Just because she’s a woman? No, but then again, maybe yes.   Even if we keep sex  and gender out of it, Warren was impressive in her own right. At an early age, she studied the classics—history, literature, political theory, and philosophy—with her brother, James Otis. During the War of Independence and the debates over the Constitution, she drew upon this rich education while writing political poems, plays, and tracts for general consumption. Perhaps most impressively, in her three-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, she imparts the wisdom she gained through study and experience by commenting on human nature in general and the character of the American people in particular.  

OLL's June Birthday: Harriet Martineau

June’s birthday is the British liberal social theorist, writer, and political activist Harriet Martineau (born June 12, 1802). Often described as the first female sociologist, Martineau wrote on a wide variety of subjects such as religion, economics, and travel. She also wrote novels and was a translator of Auguste Comte. Unusually for a woman of her time, she was able to support herself solely through her writing.

Thomas Jefferson’s Last-Minute Flip-Flop on the Future of American Democracy

As Thomas Jefferson neared his death—which came on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence—he composed some of the most famous and optimistic lines ever to emerge from his pen. He had been invited to attend celebrations of the Golden Jubilee far and wide, but at age eighty-three he was far too frail to do so. He instead sat down on June 24 to write a self-consciously eloquent message about the significance of the anniversary to Roger Weightman, the mayor of Washington, DC, who was overseeing the festivities in the nation’s capital.

The Marriage of Figaro and the Fall of the Aristocracy

When Mozart wanted to make his name known to Vienna’s opera-going public, he made a daring choice. He had Lorenzo Da Ponte write a libretto based on a controversial play by Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Like the play, the opera was called The Marriage of Figaro

How to Read a Constitution…Hamilton Style

To continue the Beatles analogy, if James Madison was the George Harrison of his day, certainly Alexander Hamilton was a lead vocalist of the caliber of John Lennon, and there are very good reasons why he resonates so well today that he is the subject of an all-time leading musical! Madison may well be one of the most important writers of our “constitutional notes,” but it is to Hamilton that we owe the most creative and even original expressions of those passages into legislative and political “music.” 

Is Madison’s Federalist Theory Still Relevant Today?

From: Colleen SheehanDate: June 16, 2022To: G. Patrick Lynch, Hans EicholzCc: OLL Subject: Is Madison’s Federalist Theory Still Relevant Today?

When Liberals Behave Illiberally

Attempts to reach a liberal utopia are likely to fail. I claim this not as a Burkean conservative but as a classical liberal and ardent defender of individualism. People should be free to live and interact by their own conscience and reasons as long as in so doing they don’t impose on others. However, a society that permits freedom of conscience will almost certainly contain individuals and groups who are manifestly not liberal in their everyday lives. They may respect others’ basic rights but also value solidarity over personal autonomy, hierarchy over role equality, tradition over experimentation. So long as nobody is locked into these ways of living who wishes to exit them, an open society should tolerate, and in some cases even welcome, their presence. 

Get Back! Madison: More Reasons to Read Madison

From: Hans EicholzDate: June 14, 2022To: G. Patrick LynchCc: OLL Subject: Get Back! Madison…More Reasons to read Madison

Which Beatle is James Madison?

If we think about the most prominent of the American Founding Fathers as the Beatles, then Jefferson, Washington and Hamilton have gotten most of the attention from folks, much like Paul McCartney, John Lennon and Ringo Starr. They were the fan favorites and most prominent. But what about James Madison? I think he is much like George Harrison.  Moreover, putting aside Harrison’s prodigious song writing abilities with the Beatles and afterwards, it is his sublime guitar work and his ability to fit musically with the other three that mirror the role Madison should play in our understanding of the American political system today.

Beyond the Hate: George Orwell's 1984

Readers across the political spectrum love George Orwell's 1984 His concepts of the "Ministry of Truth" and "Newspeak" permeate discussions about political rhetoric, while "the Hate" is a ritual that viewers of news programs might feel tempted to replicate.  Who has not felt the urge to yell, if not hurl books, at the bleating heads on our screens?

Samuel Adams…Much More Than a Beer

Millions of Americans today are concerned about social justice. Issues ranging from abortion to environmental devastation to racial disparities in income, education, convictions, and imprisonment roil our nation. Similarly, more than 250 years ago, many American colonists were deeply troubled by perceived social injustices. In the 1760s and early 1770s, they protested that the British were denying them fundamental political, economic, social, and religious freedoms. 

Fidelio: Beethoven’s Hymn to Freedom

Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, which dates from 1805, addresses issues which are just as important today. Its plot concerns a whistleblower whom a corrupt prison governor has “disappeared.” His wife, Leonore, disguises herself as a young man named Fidelio and gets a job in the prison to find out if he is still alive.

Envy and Inequality

Is a desire to reduce inequality largely motivated by envy? In his pioneering work Envy, sociologist Helmut Schoeck explores the ramifications of what he claims is our indelible human tendency to compare ourselves with others. He makes several distinctions. Malicious envy is the most pernicious form - a desire not to raise oneself but see others brought down. By contrast, emulation is the desire to raise oneself without bringing others down. Finally, indignation is the desire to punish those who have (are perceived to have) done wilful injustice to oneself or others.