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 Page

“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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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 Page

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: 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 Page

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: Zeno and the Tortoise by Nicholas Fearn

Zeno and the Tortoise: How to Think Like a PhilosopherZeno and the Tortoise: How to Think Like a Philosopher by Nicholas Fearn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This book presents twenty-five philosophical tools or concepts fundamental to thinking philosophically. Fearn does an excellent job of making these ideas comprehensible while exploring how they can be of practical value in philosophizing (as opposed to diving into conceptual minutiae and the conflicts and debates around them.) The author uses stories, metaphors, and examples extensively, while avoiding jargon or complicated expressions and explanations.

The book is entirely Western-oriented, and one won’t see any discussion of ideas originating outside Europe (or North America by way of immigration from Europe.) That’s not uncommon for English language popular philosophy books, and I don’t think there’s anything nefarious to be read into it, though some will find it a shame. The philosophers whose ideas are addressed span from pre-Socratic Greece to Richard Dawkins (who I’m pretty sure is the only one still living.) The reader learns about reductionism, relativism, the Socratic method, analogy / allegory, teleology, thought experiments, parsimony, pragmatism (of sorts,) induction, skepticism, social contract, utilitarianism, dialectics, falsifiability, memes, deconstruction, and more.

I found this book to be readable and absorbing and would highly recommend it for anyone who would like an overview of the major ideas of Western philosophy and how they can be applied to thinking more philosophically.

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Cynic Limerick

The philosopher named Diogenes
was like a dog... known to have fleas.
-failed to find an honest man.
-didn't let "Greatness" block his tan.
But he lived simply, and as he pleased.

BOOK REVIEW: Beauty: A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton

Beauty: A Very Short IntroductionBeauty: A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This isn’t so much a book about what beauty is as where we find it, and in what kind of traits we find it, including the question of whether all that is aesthetically pleasing is beauty (or is beauty one element among multiple sources of aesthetic pleasure.) Scruton proposes four major locations of beauty: the human form (and face,) nature, everyday objects, and art. Each of these four has its own chapter (ch. 2-5,) and those chapters form the core of the book. Other chapters examine related questions such as: whether (/how) we can judge beauty, whether it means anything to say someone has good or bad taste, and how / why we find aesthetic appeal in places often consider devoid of beauty (e.g. the profane, the kitsch, the pornographic, etc.)

I found this book to be well-organized and thought-provoking. I liked that the author used a range of examples from literature and music as well as from the graphic arts. (Though the latter offer the advantage of being able to present the picture within the book — which the book often does.) I felt that the questions were framed nicely and gave me much to think about.

Some readers will find the occasional controversial opinion presented gratuitously to be annoying, as well as the sporadic blatant pretentiousness. I forgave these sins because the overall approach was analytical and considerate.

If you’re looking for an introductory guide to the philosophy of aesthetics and beauty, this is a fine book to read. [Note: there is a VSI guide (from the same series) on aesthetics that (I assume) has a different focus (though I haven’t yet read it.)]

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