Reading Room Archives

OLL's May Birthday--Karl Heinrich Marx (May 5, 1818 – March 14, 1883)

May’s featured OLL Birthday is the Journalist, classical economist, historian, and political activist Karl Marx.  Marx’s many contributions in these areas are so profound that it is scarcely possible to understand the history of the modern world without reference to his ideas and work.

The Last King of America: A Review

When it comes to Enlightenment-era monarchs, we generally think the worst of one in particular, especially when it comes to progress – King George III of England. Too often, we think of him as the king who lost the American Revolutionary War or the king with periodic bouts of “madness.” Most recently, Jonathan Goff’s portrayal of George III in Hamilton has cemented the image of him as a tyrant and a fool.

Realism and Liturgy: Robert Eggers’s The Northman

Robert Eggers’s newest film, The Northman, is a phenomenal movie…provided you know what you are in for. The film’s advertising, apparently, did not, selling it as another gritty and gray ‘realistic’ medieval movie. The film’s depiction of Norse religious worship, rites, weapons, locations, and armor are certainly as realistic as scholars can say. But on the other hand, the film features its protagonist battling a zombie in a burial mound in order to claim a magic sword that can only be drawn at night, all at the behest of his deceased father whose spirit manifests itself as a raven. What then, is the reality which this film seeks to portray?

216 years of John Stuart Mill

The 20th of May marks the birthday of John Stuart Mill who was born in 1806, 216 years ago. He was a prolific economist, philosopher and politician who advocated for equal rights for women and individual freedom. His books like On Liberty, The Subjection of Women, Principles of Political Economy and Utilitarianism are still read to this day and have made an impact on modern society. 

Freedom and Work in Severance

Are employees free when they are at work? The new science-fiction TV show Severance explores themes about workplace culture and political oppression. Severance can also be very funny, in the tradition of Dilbert and Office Space

God, Grotius, and Moral Truth: Barbeyrac’s Critique

In “God, Grotius, and Moral Truth: Part I,” I presented Grotius’s view that, if there are sound basic moral/political principles, their truth and their obligatory force do not depend upon God’s willing or commanding those principles.  I turn here to Jean Barbeyrac’s critique of Grotius’s shocking contention as this critique appears within Barbeyrac’s notes to his edition of Grotius’s The Rights of War and Peace.  I conclude with a few critical reflections upon Barbeyrac’s stance.

God, Grotius, and Moral Truth: Part I

My previous contributions to the Reading Room describe some striking, proto-liberal strands in Hugo Grotius’s early essay, The Free Sea (1609). This two-part entry begins a series of discussions of remarkable contentions about the nature of rights and justice that are advanced in Grotius’s enormously influential masterwork, The Rights of War and Peace (1625, henceforth RWP. See xxiv-xxvii of Richard Tucker’s Introduction to RWP for a discussion of how Grotius’s Rationalism in the now canonical text is somewhat muted compared the original 1625 edition.). However, rather than beginning with Grotius’s substantive claims within political philosophy, I devote this two-part entry to a higher order contention by Grotius about the nature of sound political principles.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Horror

I recently had the chance to get on a Zoom call with Reading Room blogger and literature professor Garth Bond and with horror movie writer , director, and producer Adam Simon. We decided to get together to talk about horror from the ancient world on up to today.

Laws of a Bygone Civilization

Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Liberty offers its readers the opportunity to learn from C.H.W. Johns’s classic 1904 edition of Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters. As with later collections of early Mesopotamian documents, his focus was on what the early Israelites inherited and adapted from Babylonian civilization. Pride of place in this collection was given to the recently discovered Code of Hammurabi, first published in October 1902 by members of the French expedition to Persepolis. European and American scholars were particularly impressed with parallels and comparisons of the Code of Hammurabi with the Mosaic Code found in the Torah (particularly in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy). Johns provided a translation of the Code of Hammurabi, which readers unfamiliar with the Akkadian dialect of Babylonian can compare with other versions to get a more complete sense of its provisions.

A Postscript to Property & Justice: A Liberal Theory of Natural Rights

I am grateful to the Online Library of Liberty for hosting this discussion of my book, and of course the discussants, Aeon Skoble, Jacob Levy, and Sarah Skwire, for graciously reading and engaging with my work. In those reflections Jacob Levy raised two points of criticism I would like to address, or at least gesture to how I think they should be addressed.

Pocket Globes: The World in Your Hand

The century that began around 1670 was an extraordinary period of exploration and discovery. Antoni van Leeuwenhoek found microscopic animals teeming in a drop of water. Isaac Newton revolutionized physics. The East India Company and Hudson Bay Company expanded the range of British trade. Giovanni Cassini mapped the moon and measured the distance from Earth to Mars. Europeans explored the Great Lakes, the Mississippi, and the desert Southwest. Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen. Captain James Cook charted the South Pacific. Never had the “known world” encompassed more or been better understood.

OLL's April Birthday: Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759- September 10, 1797)

This month’s featured birthday anniversary is the English philosopher, writer, and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.  Perhaps best known for her book Vindication of the Rights of Women, she was crucially important in the arguments about the proper education of girls and young women, and in the radical intellectual currents unleashed by the French Revolution.

Something New for Shakespeare at the OLL

We don’t actually know for sure what day Shakespeare was born. We know that he was baptized on April 26, 1564, and since infants were generally baptized within three days of birth, he was probably not born any earlier than April 23rd. Since he died on April 23, 1616, and since it seems somehow appropriate that his birth and death dates “rhyme”, we generally mark his birthday on April 23rd.

Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel and Kurosawa’s Rashomon

Many popular articles have noted the similarities in structure between Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel and the classic Kurosawa film Rashomon, and a few  articles have addressed the historical truths which informed the movie and the resultant inaccuracies. However, the medieval romances and courtly love literature which the movie mentions and attempts to deconstruct have yet to really be addressed, let alone their relation to the highly acclaimed Rashomon.

April is the Cruellest Month: A Reading List on Taxation

 We thought this week would be an appropriate time to bracket off a few readings from the OLL on the timely, and most despised, topic of taxation.

Three Ways of Looking at Individualism: Freedom in Responsibility

Defending the supreme importance of individual freedom is not about endorsing license – it’s not about doing whatever you want like a self-centered immature kid. Although sometimes accused of such, individualists need not be libertines who only do whatever they feel like and don’t care if their actions harm others. A commitment to individual freedom is not a commitment to “anything goes” or “metaphysical madness”. Values may be objective or subjective – philosophers have debated this for centuries – but even the best “subjectivist” accounts of values defend informed preferences. Our reasons for action are ultimately up to us, but they require a measure of intelligibility and coherence in order for a freely lived life to be judged, even by that very person, as good for her. And it’s worth noting that some of our strongest preferences are not only about others but for them - we truly want those we care for to thrive.

Political Animals: Hesiod's Hawk and Nightingale

Recently, I was putting together a course on George Orwell's Animal Farm. Naturally, I got distracted and began researching the beast fables that provided Orwell with some of the background literary inspiration for his work. I had grown up with the fairy tales and beast fables collected by the Brothers Grimm. As I got older, I became familiar with the tales told by Aesop, and later beast fables created by Kipling and others. 

Three Ways of Looking at Individualism: Freedom in Association

Sometimes defenders of individualism are accused of “atomism”. I’m not really sure what that term means because skeptics, if they define it at all, rarely define it in a way that reflects what serious defenders of individualism claim. Defenders are often charged with preaching selfishness, materialism, anti-socialness, and lack of empathy or support for the larger community outside perhaps one’s narrow band of kin and friends. However, most defenders I’m aware of acknowledge that much of who we are is inherited from our culture and is path dependent on the order of our life experiences. Moreover, in order to live good lives, people could not at all be atomistic in the ways critics allude.

Addison's Cato: How a Dead Roman Brought Two Parties Together

In his Dictionary (1755), Samuel Johnson famously defines "Tory" as "One who adheres to the antient constitution of the state, and the apostolic hierarchy of the church of England." For the rival "Whig" party, he could summon only five words: "The name of a faction."  

Property and Justice: An OLL Book Discussion

I recently had the chance to sit down with Jacob Levy and Aeon Skoble to talk about Billy Christmas's new book Property and Justice: A Liberal Theory of Natural Rights. Its carefully drawn argument about the connections among property rights, justice, and natural rights make for complex reading, but Property and Justice is a book that comes alive in the discussion. 

Josiah Child, John Locke, and the Value of Hands

Here is what may be regarded as a footnote to Eric Schliesser’s Reading Room essay, “The Encyclopedie, Trade, and the Jews” (1/25/2022) -- in particular, to Schliesser’s discussion of the late seventeenth century economic thinker, Josiah Child’s A New Discourse of Trade (1693). Schliesser points to Child’s endorsement of a policy of welcoming foreigners and their stock (i.e., their capital) into one’s society for the sake of enhancing its wealth. 

OLL's March Birthday: Gustave de Molinari (March 3, 1819 – January 28, 1912)

This month’s featured birthday anniversary is the Franco-Belgian economist and social scientist Gustave de Molinari.  Over the course of his long life, he wrote numerous books and essays in which he argued that the forces of the free market could take care of most human demands, not only for goods, but also for services, including most of those provided by the State.  Though he never called himself such, he thus emerged as a kind of proto-anarchocapitalist. 

Three Ways of Looking at Individualism: Freedom in Agency

In Anarchy, State, and Utopia Robert Nozick asks readers to imagine that we could connect ourselves to “experience machines”. These devices could manipulate our brains into believing an entirely virtual reality where we can vividly experience our wildest dreams as if they were really happening. We wouldn’t even be aware that we were in a virtual space – our memories of connecting with it are erased, and so the space would be indistinguishable from reality in our minds.

In The Reading Room with Plato, and Some Politicians

In previous columns, I’ve discussed Plato’s grand allegory of the city-that-is-the-soul.  If we imagine a city of perfect justice, and figure out what would have to be true of it in order for it to be just, then we’d have an idea of how to cultivate justice in ourselves as an individual virtue.  That many things in his description of the city are unrealistic turns out not to have any damaging effect on the lessons the allegory imparts about how we can live better lives.  So that fact that, for instance, we aren’t likely to find rulers who are perfectly wise and just and who care only about justice and truth doesn’t mean we as individuals shouldn’t strive to be lovers of wisdom, lovers of the real as opposed to the apparent or superficial.  The fact that it’s hard to imagine literally everyone both loving their job and being excellent at it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to moderate our passions and cultivate a measure of rational self-control.