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What Makes a Book GREAT?

by November 22, 2021

Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,

Fortunately I have a very thoughtful and intellectually inquisitive husband.

You see, I’ve been prepping for tomorrow’s conversation, and it appears I’ve got Canon on the mind…

DH (dear husband) has been my constant interlocutor on the subject of whether we need a canon, what it should look like and what goes in it. (So you can see, it’s not small talk). 

His perspective is invaluable, but he’s also a writer himself... and so certain elements of literature are much more important to him than perhaps are to the general public. 

He’ll willingly admit that he’s more than happy to immerse himself in words that are truly well-written… even if they don’t actually say much (art for art’s sake). Madame Bovary, for example. 
Flaubert’s Challenge: Write a fantastic book in which nothing happens… did he succeed?
I’m more of a plot/character driven kind of gal myself. And of course, I hold great value in a work’s historical and philosophical standing. After all, if we are to judge literature just by aesthetics, then what in the world are we going to do with Aristotle?
Which is why I thought I should ask you, dear reader, for your valued opinion on the subject… to open up the conversation even more.
Tomorrow Dr. Anika Prather (of Howard University), Alexandra Hudson (of Civic Renassiance) and myself will ask whether we need a canon and if so, what should go into it… so I think before delving into such an important discussion, we should first ask: 
What make a book GREAT? 
Should we judge on aesthetics? On the wisdom provided? On its morality or inspection of truth? Is historical importance or influence key? Do we need to take into account the individual who wrote it… or where they are from? 
Or in the words of the US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, is it something you simply know when you see it?  (or in this case read it).
What Makes the Cut???
I’ll add another dimension to the question, a bonus round if you like:
Does the definition of a GREAT Book change when considering the purpose of the canon? (and of course, that purpose is also up for debate!) 
Please write in to [email protected] or reply to this email so I can bring up your points in tomorrow’s conversation… and of course, make sure to register so you can watch! Even if you can’t attend the talk live, as long as you register in advance, you will receive the recording.
Have problems with Eventbrite? You can also register directly with GotoWebinar: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/472545227940064014

Are We Open to “Other” Ideas?

by November 11, 2021

Well, dear reader, it certainly has been a while since I have stirred the proverbial pot… But last week’s email certainly did that. 
The responses came flying in – and they really demonstrated how polarised our readership (indeed society?) has become. It was truly a “Love or Hate” reaction, with no hint of feeling in between. 
But I don’t believe that any situation is so black and white. The world, whether we acknowledge it or not, is filled to the brim with nuisance and every shade of grey. 
For instance, it is always possible to criticize and critique one side while not necessarily belonging to the other. Likewise, just because a movement has a name that you can’t disagree with, doesn’t mean the movement isn’t doing things you disagree with. Anyone who has studied rhetoric… or marketing… or PR can spot this powerful tactic. No one, for example, would say they are anti-life or anti-choice. 
But whether or not it’s unpopular, the ability to discuss opposing ideas is essential for a healthy society… and democracy. 

In a recent article from Pano Kanelos, former president of (my alma mater) St. John’s college Annapolis, he addresses the worrying trend of shutting down any or all those who disagree with the prevailing attitudes, for better or for worse:

“The numbers tell the story as well as any anecdote you’ve read in the headlines or heard within your own circles. Nearly a quarter of American academics in the social sciences or humanities endorse ousting a colleague for having a wrong opinion about hot-button issues such as immigration or gender differences. Over a third of conservative academics and PhD students say they had been threatened with disciplinary action for their views. Four out of five American PhD students are willing to discriminate against right-leaning scholars, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology.

“The picture among undergraduates is even bleaker. In Heterodox Academy’s 
2020 Campus Expression Survey, 62% of sampled college students agreed that the climate on their campus prevented students from saying things they believe. Nearly 70% of students favor reporting professors if the professor says something students find offensive, according to a Challey Institute for Global Innovation survey. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports at least 491 disinvitation campaigns since 2000. Roughly half were successful.”

Now, I’m not here to defend the individual ideas… that’s not my job or even desire. But I do think it’s important that we allow different perspectives to be expressed… and heard.

Can you imagine what would happen if interlocutors, inspired by the ancient Skeptics, were capable of listening purposefully to something they don’t agree to… and with an open mind? 
 
Skeptics
A famous skeptic.. Augustine of Hippo by Sandro Botticelli
We need to prepare the next generation to be antifragile, to contend with ideas, not identities, because there can always be bigger issues at stake.  

I’ve had the fortune (or misfortune) to live in many countries and under many regimes. I’ve experienced first hand socialism in Norway and in South America, authoritarianism in the Middle East and in Russia. I’ve seen the Taiwanese struggle to form their democracy while in America it slips away.  I’ve had friends’ passports confiscated and jailed for writing economic articles against a sheikh, seen friends harassed and extorted by the cops for being foreign, as well as witnessed my father’s former employer waste away in a gulag. 
No one wants to end up here…

I’m always the outsider looking in. As such, my purpose is not to choose sides, to promote one agenda over another. In fact, I like to discriminate indiscriminately. Like the Socratic gadfly, my purpose is to annoy everyone

Well, not ‘annoy’, the actual goal is to get to the truth of the matter, to understand the situation fully. That is why having these discussions is so important. And to that end, I want to bring the conversation to you, dear reader.

Everyone wants a better society… less poverty and crime, more opportunity and freedoms. The disagreement, therefore, comes to how to get there and to what extent this can be achieved. 

But I think we’ll make more progress together if everyone can at least talk to each other.

That’s why I want your input… and to get us started, I’ve put a bit of the reader feedback from last week’s letter below. But before we get into it, I want to ask you:

Are the classics being canceled? Is our society becoming less open minded? Are we capable of allowing unpopular views? And if we aren’t, what can we do to change it? 

And to further this extremely important topic, this month I have asked Anika Prather, Professor at Howard University to join myself, along with Alexandra Hudson of Civic Renaissance, to discuss whether the Classics are being cancelled… whether we should have a canon… and if so, what should it look like? 

You can join us for this very important conversation completely FREE, taking place November 23rd at noon EDT. Register your spot here.

Are You a Psychopath?

by October 25, 2021

There are a few memes/popular posts doing the rounds these days that supposedly prove whether or not you could be a psychopath. 
The first one is a bit of fun: 
While at her own mother’s funeral, a woman meets a guy she doesn’t know. She thinks this guy is amazing — her dream man — and is pretty sure he could be the love of her life. However, she never asked for his name or number and afterwards could not find anyone who knows who he was. A few days later the girl kills her own sister – but why?”
Now, there are surely plenty of ways one could solve this puzzle, but if your answer was because the girl thought the man would show up to the second funeral… you may be a psychopath.
Well, actually that’s not the case. The above riddle hasn’t actually been substantiated in any way. The second riddle below, however, comes from an actual questionnaire in many studies… and is one you may have seen on these humble pages before. 
It’s called the Trolley Dilemma and it is an excellent thought experiment in ethics and psychology… as well as a good introduction into the ideas of utilitarianism. 
It essentially goes like this: 
A runaway trolley is about to run over and kill five people and you are standing on a footbridge next to a large stranger; your body is too light to stop the train, but if you push the stranger onto the tracks, killing him, you will save the five people. Would you push the man?
(Keep in mind, your response may be one indication that you are a psychopath…) 
Now… the inherent value of philosophically trying to solve ethical issues should hopefully be obvious. After all, this is a site dedicated to wisdom! The ancients would have most definitely approved of the exercise for its own sake. 
But we do live in a very practical world… so for those who want to take thought experiments out of the classroom and onto the streets, we can do that very easily with this one… especially with regards to modern technology.  
Variants of the original Trolley Driver dilemma arise in the design of software to control autonomous cars. Basically, programmers can choose for a self-driving vehicle to say… crash itself… if that means not driving into a crowd. The issue, of course, is that it might sacrifice the driver – or the entire car’s occupants – in the process. 
This dilemma – as well as the original trolley version – can have infinite levels of complexity. Add in factors such as the health and age of the individuals involved, or their role and contributions to society (imagine one of the folks was Albert Einstein, for instance, or Hitler…), and you have a right mess of a philosophical debate. 
So with that in mind, we’d like to turn it to you, dear reader. 
Do you turn the switch? Do you purposely crash the car? What if it’s you who is driving it? How do you solve the Trolley Dilemma? 
As always, you can comment below or write me directly at [email protected]

Is it WRONG to be nostalgic?

by October 19, 2021

Perhaps it’s most striking when you are a new parent.
I remember clearly bringing home my baby girl from the hospital. She was a whopping 2 kilos/4.4 lbs (even after a month of NICU) and those first months were hard. Very hard. The sleep deprivation was real. Very real. The constant worrying… the fussing, the feeding, the burping, the never ending nappy changes… and nappy blowouts. You know, fun stuff all around.  
Emerging from my apartment, half human, half zombie, I was regularly met with well intended abuelos, cooing over my ‘mini-baby’ in the pram. “These are the best days” they would remark, clearly not noticing the garbage bags under my eyes. “Isn’t this the most wonderful time?” they’d smile, ignoring my almost deranged demeanor. “Don’t you just Love it?” they ask.
If I had had enough energy, I might have contemplated punching these kindly old folks.
August Heyn – The Exhausted Mother – Not a Modern Phenomena

And yet, through my hazed existence, I had the dim realization, nay hope, that they spoke the truth. That these moments would one day become precious… that they would become something to be nostalgic about. 
Six years later, and while I’m glad I didn’t deck any of them, I can’t say I’m exactly nostalgic either. I much prefer the increasingly inspiring conversations I’m currently having over the fluid filled baby years…. But then again, what is nostalgia in the first place? 

The Greek compound comes from the Homeric word νόστος (nóstos), meaning “homecoming”, and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “pain” or “ache”. Interestingly, the term was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. 
Sad Swiss mercenaries crossing the Alps (Luzerner Schilling)

It was initially thought of as a debilitating medical condition, one that could even be fatal! But over the years, especially during the romantic period, nostalgia evolved to be a gentler, happier feeling… one associated with warm yearning for the past.

And while modern science claims that sentimentality improves one’s mood and self regard, the fabulously wealthy and wise king of Israel, felt otherwise. 
King Solomon. Writing Proverbs. Engraving by Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883). Culture Club / Getty Images
In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon addresses the comparison of past with present: “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Ecclesiastes 7:10)
So… what do you think dear reader? Is it WRONG to be nostalgic? Is it wise? Is it GOOD for us to yearn for the past?
As always, you can write to me directly at [email protected] or comment below and I’ll post your responses in next week’s mailbag. 

What is HOME?

by October 11, 2021

After almost five months of repeated canceled flights and new border restrictions, we finally made it home to Argentina. 
It wasn’t an easy process. In fact, in the end our flights were cancelled once more and we had to buy completely new tickets… from a completely different city across the country… which required a whole other set of flights. 
And while I feel comfortable in saying it’s been an Odyssean journey… I have to ask if I achieved a modern day nostos
The root of the word nostalgia, the ancient Greek term nostos means a return to one’s origins, a homecoming of sorts. The ancients, however, had a few important addenda to the concept, such as: nostos involves an epic hero, travel by sea, as well as an elevated status upon return. 
Odysseus and Penelope
Odysseus and Penelope. Painting by Francesco Primaticcio (1504-1570). Photo: Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio.
Now, I’m pretty certain I can’t claim any of those additions… unless we are interpreting events very loosely through the eyes of my gracious and imaginative six year old. 
But even with those extra caveats aside, can I claim nostos if my home is not my original origins? 
For the perennial expat and third culture kid like myself, one who has lived in a dozen countries, whose accent is consistently American but with a birth certificate and ancestors from Europe, the idea of ‘home’ gets pretty muddled pretty quickly. 
And I’m not the only one… In fact, we are now witnessing the highest levels of movement on record. About 258 million people, or one in every 30, are living outside their country of birth (as of 2017)…and the latest revised projection is that there will be 405 million international migrants by 2050.
Indeed, in our increasingly mobile world, ‘home’ is a hard concept to nail down… which brings us to this week’s mailbag question: 
What is HOME? How should it be defined? Is it something chosen or bestowed? And is our modern understanding of Home very different from the ancients? 
As always, you can comment below or write me directly at [email protected]

Die Young & Famous or Live Long & Unknown?

by October 4, 2021

The stunning Jodie Turner-Smith, playing “Queen”, was sitting on her car probably somewhere in Florida when the timeless question was brought up. Dusty lighting behind, the two actors discussed the conundrum which ambitious world changers have asked from the beginning of civilization. 
I was thrilled to find such an excellent ancient philosophical discussion in such an excellent modern movie! 
You see, just this week I was watching Queen & Slim, self referenced as a Black Bonnie & Clyde movie. Clearly drawing on modern events, the plot follows a tinder date that goes horribly wrong when, after a traffic stop results in the self-defense shooting of a cop, the couple find themselves on the run and hotly pursued. As they flee, their fame (and dash cam footage) goes viral, turning them into icons of resistance. 
The protagonists eventually face a modern version of the ancient dilemma, the very same one presented to Achilles in Homer’s great epic the Iliad
Achilles receives the weapons from his mother Thetis by Conconi, Mauro 1815–1860.
While the ancient Greek hero’s options were presented to him from the gods and didn’t involve a prison sentence, at its heart it is the same issue: one of self sacrifice versus comfort. Ego versus stability. 
And interestingly, the great blind bard doesn’t give us a definitive answer either… Because while Achilles chooses one answer in the Iliad, he presents the opposite view in the Odyssey
So this week, I’ll ask you dear reader: 

Is it better to die young and famous (achieving a form of immortality)… or live long and unknown? 

And, perhaps to highlight the issue more clearly, would your answer be the same during extreme times, such as in War or Resistance? 

As always, you can comment below or write me directly at [email protected]