What I’ve Been Reading

With school winding down- and my BA in sight, in a few days actually, hoorah- I’ve been able to get in a decent bit of reading, of books of my own choosing and not mandated by any class. Here is a brief overview of some things I’ve worked through over the past couple weeks.

The Servile State, Hillare Belloc: nice overview of some problems in modern capitalism, and some tenative views of solutions in a broadly distributivist order. The work is rather dated, obviously, and some of his historical arguments are overly-simplified, but his observations of how a “servile state” arises in ostensibly democratic states are just as relevant for the contemporary world. Desire for “security” is an easily employed thing for those who would further centralize economic and political power, and it is particularly powerful, it seems, in the developed world where governments and corporations can seemingly guarantee a considerable degree of comfortable security. Belloc doesn’t go into great depth on how to accomplish a Distributivist-minded order, though arguably making such a detailed case for Distributivism isn’t really his object in this book.

The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton: second read, just as enjoyable as the first time: it had been a while so I had forgotten exactly how it worked it out in the end. Chesterton’s prose is at once accessible and beautifully crafted, which makes for wonderful leisure reading. If you have not read this small masterpiece, it is well worth a couple of afternoons. Anarchists and duels and stolen elephants- what’s not to enjoy?

‘Comrades,’ he began, as sharp as a pistol-shot, ‘our meeting tonight important, though it need not be long. This branch has always had the honour of electing Thursdays for the Central European Council. We have elected many and splendid Thursdays. We all lament the sad decease of the heroic worker who occupied the post until last week. As you know, his services to the cause were considerable. He organized the great dynamite coup of Brighton, which, under happier circumstances, ought to have killed everybody on the pier. As you know, his death was as self-denying as his life, for he died through his faith in a hygenic mixture of chalk and water as a substitute for milk, which beverage he regarded as barbaric, and as involving cruelty to the cow. Cruelty, or anything approaching to cruelty, revolted him always.’ 

Life & Times of Michael K, J. M. Coetzee: A slender novel, Coetzee presents a fairly straightforward, Kafka-esque tale of a somewhat mentally handicapped man who ends up alone in a war-racked South Africa. All of Michael’s attempts to live out his simple life are thwarted as he journeys from the city, to the countryside, to the wilderness, and in and out of various camps, until finally ending up back in the city. Coetzee’s prose carries well through most of the novel; at times he comes off as a little too polemical, and the second section of the book- an interlude delivered in the first person narrative of a doctor- sounds a little stilted. The strength of the book lies in Coetzee’s general willingness to follow the relative “simplicity” of Michael, in his perception of the world and his desires and hopes.

Yet in the same instant that he reached down to check that his shoelaces were tied, K knew that he would not crawl out and stand up and cross from darkness into firelight to announce himself. He even knew the reason why: because enough men had gone off to war saying the time for gardening was when the war was over; whereas there must be men to stay behind and keep gardening alive, or at least the idea of gardening; because once that cord was broken, the earth would grow hard and forget her children. That was why.

The Holy War Idea in Western and Islamic Traditions, James Turner Johnson: Not quite finished with this one; so far a decent overview of what holy war has meant in both Western (with the principal meaning here being Western European) and Islamic cultures. Unfortunately but not unsurprisingly no attention is paid to Eastern Christian ideas on the subject (but then if I had a nickle for every time Eastern Christendom is overlooked I would be a considerably richer man); appraisal of Roman Catholic and Protestant theories and practice is quite good however. Some interesting points on the similarities and differences: both traditions eventually have rather similar conceptions of holy war, with similar regulations concerning the conduct of war, holy and otherwise. However, in Christianity the embracing of war for any purpose takes a few centuries, and it is not until the First Crusade that anything approaching a codified idea of holy war develops. In Islam holy war is present from the beginning, and indeed forms what is, in more ways than one, part of the existential core of early Islam. Likewise prohibitions upon killing or maiming noncombatants develop differently in the two traditions. The most obvious divergence between Western and Islamic views of holy war, however, is the rejection of war in the name of religion by Western secular states (though, as the author notes, wars of state ideology- often followed with as much, if not more, furvor as any religion); Islam has by and large yet to follow a similar course.

The Faith of Shia Islam, Muhammad Rida Al-Muzaffar: a slim little tome written by a twentieth century Islamic scholar from Najaf, Iraq. A decently accessible introduction to Shia Islam and its distinctives from the perspective of a Shia scholar. Al-Muzaffar places considerable emphasis upon the importance of reason and rationality in the practice of faith, and makes several arguments on the nature of God that His attributes must be interpreted rationally: such that God cannot be supposed to command evil or desire evil, as it would contradict His revealed attributes.

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