Category: Book Review

Review of “Straw Dogs: Thoughts on humans and other animals,” by John Gray

“Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” (–John Gray, in “Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Human and Other Animals, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York 2003) Thus, the closing paragraph of a book by Gray once again reflects his pleasure in poetic, but oblique narrative. I find it appealing, an intellectual challenge to extract his meaning. But for those less inclined to mental effort, he might have ended more explicitly: “There is no purpose to life. Get over it!” Gray generally interchanges meaning and purpose, and his arguments seem directed at the human tendency to seek or create either.  More correctly, his premise is that there is no more meaning to human life than to that of non-humans. Granted, many seem to find it in everything, but Gray is not buying it. He’s talking about a fundamental, existential reason for human existence that sets us apart from the rest of the biosphere. He is more inclined to say that, if it’s there, it is beyond us to perceive it. Apart from the minor existential challenge of abandoning all hope, Gray’s book is an insightful work, if a difficult one to review. Ironically, its most maddening aspect was also its most enjoyable. The entire book is...

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Reflections on “The Gnostic Gospels,” by Elaine Pagels 

I’ve long wondered about gnostics and gnosticism, an early rival movement to Orthodox Christianity. Numerous passages in the New Testament epistles refer to it obliquely (and condemn it harshly). So I sought out Pagels’ books, as well as other sources, to understand the controversy, and to understand Gnosticism. This post is the state of my (possibly flawed) understanding at this point. A more thorough and academic (though biased) treatment is found here. —————————————————— How many Christians today know their own religion’s early history, that beyond the apostolic acts and the persecution of converts? It’s a fascinating and complex story. Christ brought about a seismic shift in human culture. But people reacted as people do in such movements once their leader is gone: with competing ideas and interpretations and directions, and with arguments and infighting and denunciations. So, the first four centuries of Christianity were marked by dispute, power struggles, and political intrigue. In effect, the new movement struggled on two fronts. Externally, the Roman government distrusted Christians and used them as scapegoats and diversions for various political ends. It’s largely from this that we get the persecution stories of the early saints. But the early Church faced an internal struggle as well, as converts fragmented into hundreds of competing sects, each derived from a particular interpretation of Christ’s message, many producing their own sacred texts and narratives. Had it...

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The good and the bad…

“When I tried day after day to do good and to relieve the suffering of my patients, I was myself. And when I let myself go and plunged into shameful activities, I was also myself. My scientific studies forced me to the following truth–man is not truly one person, but actually two.” –Dr. Henry Jekyll, in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” by Robert Louis Stevenson (various publishers). Thinking about human cruelty these past few weeks, I found myself reading Stevenson’s classic allegory of good and evil, the tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Like many, I suspect, I knew something of the story but had never actually read it. Doing so after the last two posts was discomfiting. “Jekyll and Hyde” is an allusion to the very things we’ve been considering. In a sense it’s a parable, because of its implicit warning. Jekyll is a respected, upper class physician with a bent towards tinkering. He’d always lived within cultural norms. But, having long sensed his personal darkness, he wondered how it would feel to indulge it. So he developed a potion to allow himself to do that. The heart of the story is that his dark side proved stronger than his good. Eventually it began to take him over without the potion. The more it indulged itself, the greater became it’s greed and disregard...

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On T.F. Powys and “The Soliloquy of a Hermit”

Man is a collection of atoms through which pass the moods of God…” T.F.Powys, “Soliloquy of a Hermit,” (Hardpress Publishing, Miami. Originally by G. Arnold Shaw, N.Y., 1916) On first read, this work comes off as obtuse commentary on the nature of man, the appeal of simplicity, and the misguided desire for immortality…with some incomprehensible Jesus language tossed in. I was unsurprised that both it and Powys are little known to modern readers. Finding its core, if core there were, would take patience. Who has time for that these days? But I’d come to the book via John Gray, a British political philosopher. Gray spends several pages in “The Soul of the Marionette” discussing Powys. So I explored what Gray and others had to say about him, then gave the book a second read. At some point (and with much help from Gray, on whom I draw for this review) I began to understand it.  Once I did, I found it so insightful I had to read it yet again.  It’s so full of pithy and even humorous commentary, I want to break it into chapter and verse and quote it like the Bible: Powys 6:23, or the like. The book’s original publisher calls it “religious psychology.” Gray and others speak of Powys’ as being “deeply but unconventionally religious.”  I presume, they mean religious from the monotheistic perspective. In...

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Review of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” by Yuval Noah Harari

“We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steam ships to space shuttles—but nobody knows where we’re going.” — Yuval Noah Harari (From Animals Into Gods: A Brief History of Humankind, draft edition 2012) —- Harari is Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Israel.  This review is of a prepublication draft of his book, titled “From Animals into Gods,” which I bought on Kindle at the time. He subsequently renamed it on publication in 2015.  A cursory examination suggests the two are functionally identical.  For simplicity, I present it as “Sapiens,” but I read the former.   —-  To begin, I wouldn’t say Sapiens is a profound book, but it is unquestionably useful and insightful, perhaps more so than any I have read. It reflects an ability on the part of Mr. Harari to think holistically and synthetically across many disciplines. In today’s stovepiped academia, this is a rare and commendable trait. Only someone with extraordinary intellectual perspective could have produced this work. It has its faults, enough that I almost put it down. But as I gradually saw disparate disciplines woven into a story, I became hooked. I’d consider Sapiens required reading for anyone wishing to offer meaningful comment on our modern world. The author might have subtitled his work, “A Unified Theory of Civilization.” He treats biology, cognition, culture, religion, history, economics, science, psychology and...

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