Note to Self: A Sonnet

Don't fill your vaults with glowing, shiny stones.
It's invitation to all cheats and thieves. 
Don't know by mind what you don't know by bone.
Make sure you've lost before you up and grieve.

Then when you grieve, take time to fully feel.
Don't let your mind write stories so untrue
that they turn melancholy like a wheel
that gathers and grows with each turn anew. 

Be kind and true, but not so kind and true
so as to kill with gifts or a mean tongue.
Don't do what would be best that you not do,
and only sing of those heroes unsung.

Oh, every piece of wisdom has its day,
so don't hitch so tight that you're led astray.

BOOK REVIEW: Dao De Jing: A Minimalist Translation by Lao Zi [Trans. Bruce R. Linnell]

Dao De Jing: A Minimalist TranslationDao De Jing: A Minimalist Translation by Lao Zi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Available Free on Project Gutenberg

The Dao De Jing presents the core philosophy of Taoism, a philosophy that values simplification, non-action, naturalness, spontaneity, and recognition of opposites in [and their influence on] each other. There are numerous editions (this is the Wang Bi / “standard” ed.) and English translations of this Daoist tract, and the translation matters because the Dao De Jing is at once simply stated and arcane. I liked what Linnell did with this translation, which – as the subtitle suggests – he aimed to make simple and straightforward.

One nice feature of this translation is that each of the 81 chapters has four segments: the original Chinese text, a readable English translation, a word-for-word literal translation, and notes. Having the Chinese, a literal translation, and notes can be helpful when one has trouble deciphering the more cryptic passages. Another nice feature is an appendix in which the author discusses another scholar’s hypothesis that the chapters of the Dao De Jing were composed in layers, and Linnell re-orders the chapters as suggested by this hypothesis. Finally, the book ends with a Jefferson Bible-esque excerpt collection that takes all the places where Lao Zi wrote “Thus the sage:” and builds a single composition describing a wise person.

If you’re interested in Taoist philosophy, you may want to read this translation, whether you’re new to the Dao De Jing or you’ve read other translations or editions in the past.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction by Terry Eagleton

The Meaning of LifeThe Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“What is the meaning of life?” This is the question thrown at anyone accused of being a philosopher – professional or lay – though mostly in jest. In the present day, that is. In centuries past, large portions of the population took for granted that it was a question that had a knowable answer (one dictated by religion.) But as that answer became decreasingly satisfying to an increasing portion of the populace, people began to see the question as both fundamentally unanswerable and as a means to chide / test individuals who claimed wisdom or had the claim thrust upon them.

In this concise guide, Eagleton takes on the question, beginning with consideration of whether it is even a sound question. (Or, is it a question like: “What is the meaning of cabbage?” or “What color is a hypothesis?”) After considering many of the problems with the question, from the meaning of “meaning” to the presumptions about what a life has (and what it is) the book also considers some of the post-Nietzschean answers to the question and the challenges that confront them. [One that I hadn’t thought much about criticizes that many of these recent attempts are individualist (i.e. find your own meaning, one consistent with the peculiarities of your own unique life.) Is it reasonable to think that the question can only be answered at the level of granularity of the individual? Maybe, it can only be, but I did appreciate that it gave me something to think about.]

It should be pointed out that Eagleton doesn’t consider himself a philosopher. He’s primarily a critic and English literature professor. This had its advantages. First, Eagleton drew upon works of literature that explore the question, which both made for some interesting insights while also breaking up dense tangles of philosophizing. Second, much of the book deals with linguistic issues. Are the words and grammar of the question, “What is the meaning of life?” useful, and – if so – how do we understand the nature and limits of the question?

I found this book intriguing and provocative. It does have thickets of dense language, but also has its fun moments as well.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Pocket Chögyam Trungpa by Chögyam Trungpa

The Pocket Chogyam TrungpaThe Pocket Chogyam Trungpa by Chögyam Trungpa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This pocket-sized guide consists of 108 excerpts drawn from the writings of Chögyam Trungpa, a prolific — if controversial — teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. Chögyam Trungpa may have been most famous in the West for coining the English term “Crazy Wisdom,” and for founding Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. [Note: while he coined the term “Crazy Wisdom,” he didn’t originate the concept, which existed already – arguably in multiple forms — in Vajrayana Buddhism from olden times.] Beyond basic Buddhist philosophy, he wrote extensively on Buddhist Psychology, Tantric Buddhism, and the Buddhist conception of warriorship.

The book is designed to be picked up at any point. There isn’t a formal grouping of concepts, but rather the book meanders around, revisiting ideas such as Enlightenment, Emptiness, emotional intelligence in multiple locations throughout the book. The entries are between a paragraph and a page long in most cases.

I found a great deal of food-for-thought in this book and would highly recommend it for those wishing to dip a toe into the teachings of Chögyam Trungpa.


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Conflicted Botanist Limerick

There once was a Philosopher-Botanist
who, on his jobs, had been an optimist.
But he bred seedless fruits,
and came to feel in cahoots
with purpose-denying nihilist dogmatists.

BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Hegel: A Graphic Guide by Lloyd Spencer

Introducing Hegel: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Hegel: A Graphic Guide by Lloyd Spencer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book combines a biography of the German philosopher Hegel with a quick and dirty overview of his most well-known philosophical ideas. Today, Hegel is best known for his approach to dialectics (thesis confronts antithesis, resulting in synthesis,) and for having a profound influence on the thinking of Karl Marx. However, the book addresses a broad collection of philosophical ideas including those in aesthetics, political philosophy, philosophy of history, and philosophy of religion. (With respect to the latter, it should be noted that Hegel was a believer [of the Protestant Christian persuasion,] lest one think that, given frequent co-utterances of Hegel and Marx [of the “religion as opiate of the masses” persuasion,] that the two philosophers were in complete lockstep; they were not.)

I found this book to be readable, and to be successful in conveying Hegel’s philosophical ideas – at least in a rudimentary form. It’s useful that the book wraps up by reflecting upon whether Hegel is even relevant in the world as we know it, and – if so – why? Hegel might have been a name lost to time if he hadn’t come to be so enthusiastically cited by Marx, a scholar who left a huge imprint on twentieth century history.

If you’re interested in the life and philosophy of Hegel, but don’t want to be inundated by minutiae or complexity, this is a fine work to investigate.


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BOOK REVIEW: Humanism: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Law

Humanism: A Very Short IntroductionHumanism: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Law
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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In this guide, Law lays out the basic principles of humanism, discusses the arguments for and against belief in a deity, and examines the humanist conceptions of morality and meaning of life (two constructs that religious people often claim can only exist in a deist world.) Humanism is an ill-understood system, in large part because it isn’t so much a set of ideas ascribed to as a way of approaching ideas in a questioning and secular way. Therefore, defining humanism isn’t as straightforward as listing a set of common beliefs because humanism can cover a wide variety of different worldviews. That makes this a particularly useful book as it clears up a number of false equivalences. Many think that humanism is the same as atheism or agnosticism, and while humanists generally follow one of those two approaches to the question of whether there is a god, humanism isn’t identical to either.

This book does a good job of organizing the debate and laying out arguments and counterarguments. I learned a lot by reading the book and by deliberating over the points of contention. There were points where I think more could have been said. For example, in the chapter on the meaning of life, after systematically dismantling the religious argument that a meaningful life is the sole domain of religion, Law doesn’t offer any guidance as to the humanist approach to pursuing a meaningful life (stating merely that most humanists agree with the religious about what is a meaningful life, even if they disagree about why it is.) I realize this is a brief guide, and the author might have wanted to avoid stepping on the toes of other guides in the series that investigate the question, but it stands as a deficiency. True, there wouldn’t be a list of what makes a meaningful life so much as an outline of how to approach it, but, still, even an overly simplified statement would have been useful.

I learned a lot from this book and would recommend it for anyone wanting to gain insight into the debates around humanism.


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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing the Enlightenment by Lloyd Spencer

Introducing the Enlightenment: A Graphic GuideIntroducing the Enlightenment: A Graphic Guide by Lloyd Spencer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This brief illustrated guide offers a history of the Age of Enlightenment with a particular focus on the changing philosophical landscape and its opposition. It does dip into the literature and arts of the time, but most intensely with respect to philosophical novels. It also discusses a burgeoning scientific scene, but mostly with respect to Isaac Newton and his influence. The Enlightenment was an age in which religion’s hold on the populace was declining and tolerance of other sects was increasing, and at the same time there was increasing liberalization, rationality, and openness to new ideas. Therefore, much of the focus is on philosophy of religion and political philosophy, and Locke, Bacon, Rousseau, Diderot, and Voltaire are the most extensively discussed personalities. (Particularly Rousseau and Voltaire as their contrasting views offered insight to the breadth of views among Enlightenment philosophers.)

I felt this book did a fine job of delivering an overview of the era and the new ideas that informed it. It drew heavily on quintessential quotes of major figures of the day (particularly the very quotable Voltaire.) It’s a fine place to begin one’s examination of the topic and includes a “Further Reading” section as a means to direct those who would like deeper insight into the subject.


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BOOK REVIEW: Philosophy in the Bedroom by Marquis de Sade

Philosophy in the BoudoirPhilosophy in the Boudoir by Marquis de Sade
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This seven-part dialogue tells the story of a young woman’s education in libertinage (“libertine” shouldn’t be confused with liberal or libertarian.) The book mixes action sequences of a pornographic nature with philosophical discussions on ethics, law, governance, relationships, and religion. A young woman, Eugenie, is sent (without objection) by her father into the care of Madame de Saint-Ange, though another character, Dolmance, serves as both the girl’s primary philosophy lecturer as well as the choreographer of the orgiastic sexual activities that take place throughout book.

Overall, the philosophy is weak, but not altogether lacking compelling ideas, at least in the context of its time – i.e. late Age of Enlightenment. Setting aside the controversial and broadly reviled nature of Sade’s philosophy, I criticize it primarily on the grounds that it misunderstands its own foundations and frequently contradicts itself. The foundations I’m referring to are the workings of the natural world. Libertine philosophy is an offshoot of Enlightenment thinking, and as such attempts to replace the superstition and the arbitrary morals of religion. The question becomes with what one replaces religion-driven bases for determining action. Sade’s argument is that we should see ourselves as part of nature and behave in synch with it. It could be argued that using natural principles as one’s guide is as fine an idea as any, but the problem is Sade doesn’t have an accurate picture of how nature really works. Ironically, he seems to have the same unsophisticated view of nature that his opponents held – i.e. that nature is always and everywhere a brutal and chaotic hellscape. [The main difference is that Sade assumed that one must surrender to this hellscape while his opponents proposed that one must subdue it.] The fact of the matter is promiscuity and intraspecies killing aren’t universal in nature, and cooperation does exist alongside competition in the natural world. (To be clear, interspecies killing is universal for many species and intraspecies killing occurs, but consider venomous snakes of a given species that wrestle for dominance while not using their poison or infantrymen who only pretend to shoot their weapons in combat. Also, I don’t mean to suggest monogamy is the rule [besides in birds, where it is,] but Sade seems to believe there is no order to mating in the natural world.) In sum, nature does not tell us to default to the most savage behavior in all situations, and while animals can be ferocious, they generally don’t go around being jerks for the sake of being a jerk.

Since I also criticized the book’s philosophy for inconsistency, I will give one example to demonstrate a more widespread problem. Dolmance tells us that humans should live checked only as nature would check us (as opposed to by religious dictates,) but tells Eugenie to not listen to the voice of nature that tells her to not behave fiendishly.

I also said this philosophy wasn’t without compelling points. Setting aside the many ideas that were well-addressed by more mainstream philosophers long before Sade entered the picture (e.g. the need to separate the activities of religion from those of government,) Sade’s arguments for seeing a purpose for sexual activity beyond procreation, against seeing the making of more humans as a grand and necessary virtue, and against attaching stigmas to nonprocreative sex are all ideas that have gained traction since the turn of the 19th century and arguably could be furthered to positive ends.

Speaking briefly to the non-philosophical side of the book, I will say that – excepting Dialogue VII (the final one) – this book was much less disturbing than some other of the Marquis’s books (e.g. 120 Days of Sodom or Justine,) Prior to the last section, the book involves consensual activities that aren’t dialed up to the maximum level of shock value. That said, Dialogue VII is as cringeworthy as they come. Also, I didn’t understand how all the orgy choreography could work, but that might be attributable to my lack of imagination.

This book will obviously not be everyone’s cup of tea (too much orgy sex for some, too much philosophy for others, and to much of both for most) but as the Marquis de Sade’s books go, it does delve most deeply into philosophy and is moderately less disturbing than some others.


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