Thursday, May 13, 2021

Latest Books


Currently I'm reading Freeman Dyson's Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters. I got it from the library as an e-book and, not being familiar with modern technology, I didn't see the subtitle and thought it was going to be a summary of 20th Century mathematics and physics for laypeople. Instead it's excerpts from letters to his parents and his sister whenever he was apart from them. They start in the late-1930s and he'll be including stuff from the late-1970's. So far I'm only in the mid-1950's. But it's interesting nonetheless. Dyson helped to reconcile the Quantum Electrodymanic theories of Julian Schwinger and Richard Feynman. It's a very human account of the physics world in the immediate postwar period. Dyson writes about having to convince Robert Oppenheimer of the importance of Feynman's work. [INTERESTING: I looked for a link and found that Oppenheimer was praising Feynman in 1943. But by the time Dyson meets Oppenheimer the latter is unimpressed with Feynman's latest work.] He talks as an international scientist about the personal lives and struggles of male and female scientists from different countries in the chaos of the postwar/Cold War era. While I don't agree with all of his views, Dyson appears to have been considerably free of the racism and sexism that prevailed at the time. He rejected any notion that people from different parts of the world or of different sexes had differing levels of intellectual potential.  Even his accounts of travelling across the triumphant United States (by bus often, in order to see as much as possible) are interesting as you can sense the economic vitality through his words and his own thoughts as a British man from a comfortable economic background. 

Years ago I bought David Nasaw's biography of Andrew Carnegie at a Sear's bargain bin in Hamilton's Limeridge Mall. I started it and thought it was a trifle hagiographic but interesting. I gave Carnegie credit for being a principled opponent of war and government military spending. Then Carnegie competed for contracts to make battleship steel for the US Navy and I gave up the book in disgust. I took it off the shelf again a while ago and started over. I have to say that Nasaw is very fair to Carnegie. He argues convincingly that Carnegie's altruism was genuine, but also never fails to point out the man's hypocrisies and delusions. Essentially, Carnegie was a witty, charming young man who landed a job in a telegraph office and was able to make contacts in his city's (Pittsburgh) business community. Success as a telegraph reader led to promotion to telegraph operator, which led to work for a railroad company which led to promotion to a superintendent and so on. Carnegie eventually became a bond salesman and that all led to his becoming the owner and builder of the biggest iron and steel manufacturer in the United States. (I'd thought that Carnegie had been some sort of pioneering engineer/operator of a small steel firm and not a financial guy who drifted into the industry as a matter of happenstance.)

Anyway, obviously, Carnegie became a mega-capitalist. A peer of John D. Rockefeller. Together with his manager Henry Clay Frick, he crushed the union of his workers at his Homestead facilities. Carnegie believed that the political-economy which resulted in enormous wealth being concentrated in the hands of men such as himself was beneficial to society in the long-run. Men like him and Rockefeller were obviously men of intelligence and ability. They could direct their wealth into collective improvements (in Carnegie's case it was public libraries) which would have better social results than if it went to pockets of the thousands of replaceable men in his steel mills who would only waste it on better food, housing, clothes etc. Nasaw doesn't fail to point out the cruel obliviousness of Carnegie's urging his workers (who, after smashing their union, he has subjected to 12-hour a day shifts, seven days a week of heavy physical labour) to not neglect outside pursuits for personal development.

Finally, I got two books out on Athenian democracy. Thomas N. Mitchell's Democracy's Beginning: The Athenian Story.  What I got out of it was that there was some sort of crisis in Athens in the Sixth Century, caused by oligarchic domination and the subsequent impoverishment of much of the population. A respected patrician [that's a term from Ancient Rome but whatever] named Solon was asked to provide legislative changes that would bring some sort of balance back to Athenian society. Solon's reforms failed in the short run but they led to further reforms from later lawgivers which provided the basic structures that Athenian democracy was based on. This was self-rule, through a legislative assembly by all male citizens.  Later, in the war against the Persian Empire, the contribution of the poorest men as oarsmen in the Athenian navy gave them a feeling that they had just as much right as the wealthiest and the noblest in the leading of their City-State. Mitchell writes that democratic Athens tended to be led by members of the aristocracy and/or wealthy class, as these men had the education and self-confidence to take charge, but that the majority had to support them and - importantly - these leaders could be held accountable to the Assembly. (Mitchell points to the increasing lack of accountability today as being dangerous to social stability and democracy's integrity. I heartily agree. I ranted and raved about this problem during the harper years.) In the end, Mitchell says that Athenian democracy produced the lust for imperialism and the pig-headedness that produced the Peloponnesian War that saw Athens broken as a major power. The men in the Athenian Assembly repeatedly rejected opportunities for a favourable peace when a temporary victory produced offers for ending the war from Sparta. Athens would recover, but again squandered it's achievements by pursuing war with Macedonia in the late-Fourth Century. Upon their defeat the Athenians were forced to terminate their democratic institutions and were henceforth ruled by an oligarchy. 

I've only just started Paul Cartledge's Democracy: A Life. I'll try to remember to add my final thoughts at a later time. But basically Cartledge is so far talking about the rather hazy notion of "democracy" that was forming at the time (5th Century BCE) as opposed to the more concrete idea we have of what the term meant and how it operated in posterity. Cartledge will go on to describe the differences between Athenian democracy and "democracy" as it was subsequently defined and practiced in more recent times. He also says that he will differentiate between this concept of democracy and those proposed by [often] non-Western scholars who insist that democracy was not limited to Ancient Greece and Western Europe.

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