Harold Bloom reads from Corrupted into Song: The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman

We are proud to have published Corrupted into Song: The Complete Works of Alvin Feinman. Though his poetry is lyrically intense and philosophically ambitious, Feinman published sparsely and remained largely unknown when he died in 2008. This is the definitive edition of Feinman’s complete work, which includes fifty-seven previously published poems and thirty-nine unpublished poems discovered among his manuscripts. Harold Bloom, who wrote the foreword, said of his friend’s poetry, “The best of Alvin Feinman’s poetry is as good as anything by a twentieth-century American. His work achieves the greatness of the American sublime.” Listen to Bloom read two of Feinman’s poems below to experience that sublimity for yourself in a PUP blog exclusive.

Alvin Feinman

Alvin Feinman

“November Sunday Morning” by Alvin Feinman:

“Relic” by Alvin Feinman:


The Law is a White Dog author Colin Dayan debunks the rationality of law

What do abused dogs, prisoners tortured in Guantánamo and supermax facilities, and slaves killed by the state have in common? They have all been deprived of their personhood by the law. In The Law is a White Dog, Colin Dayan shows how the law can be used to dehumanize and marginalize, even as it upholds civil order. Dayan puts the topic in historical context, showing how these issues are still prevalent today. In an interview with WFHB Indiana, the author speaks to recent instances of police brutality. Listen for a fresh take on a a timely issue.

Happy Birthday to the original champion of “simple living”, Henry David Thoreau!

Henry David Thoreau, born 199 years ago today, was an essayist, political philosopher, poet, tax resister, naturalist and abolitionist, whose writings and methods anticipated modern day environmental and “simple living” movements by well over a century. Born in Concord, Massachusetts, he died of Tuberculosis at only 44 years old. In spite of his passionate positions on various issues of the day, from nonviolent resistance to taxation, his political writings made little impact in his short lifetime. Today of course, the transcendental author is one of the most widely studied and taught; his hugely influential memoir, Walden: Life in the Woods and as his social criticism alike continue to resonate deeply with modern readers.

thoreauThoreau’s life story is full of fascinating bits of color—he worked at a pencil factory, was influenced by Indian spiritual thought, and followed various Hindu customs. Few writers have been as widely quoted, from the famous, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”) to the obscure (“Who are the estranged? Two friends explaining”). Thoreau’s thoughts on topics ranging from sex to solitude, manners to miracles can be found in The Quotable Thoreau, edited by Jeffrey Cramer. The book contains over 2,000 passages, thematically arranged, and a true treasure for students of the famous minimalist.

Happy birthday to Henry David Thoreau, a man as witty as he was profound, and well ahead of his time.

Happy Birthday, Alan Turing

Hodges_AlanTuring movie tie inThursday, June 23rd marks the birthday of Alan Turing, widely credited with being the father of the modern computer and artificial intelligence, as well as with leading the Bletchley Park codebreakers in cracking an encryption method used by the Nazi’s. PUP is proud to have published Alan Turing: The Enigma, a scientific biography of the famous cryptologist that went on to become a New York Times Bestseller, and was adapted in the 2014 historical drama/thriller The Imitation Game. The film was a commercial and critical success, grossing over $233 million worldwide. Turing is, for many, a modern day mathematical hero in the spirit of Albert Einstein or John Nash.

Yet despite his genius and groundbreaking accomplishments, Turing was hounded to his early death about his sexuality. After facing a 1952 charge of indecency over his relationship with another man, a criminal act in the UK at the time, he endured chemical castration and took his own life only two years later at age 41.

Archaic attitudes and inhumane treatment of LGBT people continued by the agency (and more broadly in society) for decades after Turing’s death. But in a historic move this past April, the GCHQ (UK Government Communications Headquarters) issued a formal apology, acknowledging that the treatment of Turing was “horrifying”.

You can read more about the apology here.

A man who changed the modern world while anticipating gay liberation by decades, Turing’s tragically brief four decades of life were unarguably well spent. Happy birthday, Alan Turing.

Gendered toys and architectural careers

The numbers don’t add up, according to Despina Stratigakos, author of Where are the Women Architects? 40% of those pursuing a degree in architecture are women, and yet the vast majority of professionals working in the field are male. Why is this? Outside pressure is key, and that begins at a young age.


CC image courtesy of marek szlak on Flickr

It’s no secret that the toys children play with often shape their imaginations and ideals. So what does it mean when one of the biggest known architectural toy brands alters the brand just for girls? Lego is a household name and despite years of knowing that girls are interested in the toys, their website layout features a small ‘girls’ tab, implying that only this selection of toys are intended for girls. The section contains different playsets, with everything from a beauty salon to an airport. But unlike the boys section, which presumably encompasses the rest of the website, all of these toys come with large sections prebuilt and don’t encourage unique construction by the girls.


CC image courtesy of Bill Ward on Flickr

In her book, Where are the Women Architects?, Stratigakos discusses other girls’ toys that have caused controversy, like Architect Barbie. Though the problem of gendered toys has been widely discussed, no clear solution has presented itself. The fact remains: the “girl friendly” Lego Friends toys offer no real role models outside of the homemaking, beauty, and food industries. None of this bodes well considering the sobering statistics: a professional field that is mostly composed of and caters toward men.


CC image courtesy of A. C. on Flickr

StratigakosDespina Stratigakos is associate professor and interim chair of architecture at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. She is the author of Hitler at Home and A Woman’s Berlin: Building the Modern City.

Tom Jones on Alexander Pope’s “original vision of humankind”

PopeHighly regarded as one of the most important and controversial works of the Enlightenment, Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Man” was a way to “vindicate the ways of God to man” in terms of the existence of evil, man’s place in the universe, and how humankind should behave in the world. Tom Jones has provided a comprehensive introduction in his accessible, reader-friendly new edition of the famous poem, An Essay on Man. Recently, Jones answered some questions about the poem, its reception, moral lessons, and distinctive contribution to ethical theory:

What does Pope say about ‘man’ in his essay?

TJ: (I’ll talk about ‘people’ in this interview, to avoid suggesting that the Essay on Man is about men rather than men and women.) Pope says some contrasting things about people in this poem, and one of the pleasures of reading it is working out how they do or don’t fit together. The poem is divided into four epistles, or letters, to Pope’s friend, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Each of the epistles considers man from a different perspective: as one link in a chain of creatures; as an individual; in society; with respect to what makes people happy. Each epistle has a different feel or dominant tone. The first emphasises that people can only know a part of what is going on in the universe. The second, that we are a confusion of antagonistic psychological principles. The third, that self-love and social instincts turn out to support one another very fully. And the fourth, that human happiness rests in learning that individual goods always tend to be goods for others too, and that we ought to widen our perspective to consider other people’s good. So the tone of the fourth epistle is really quite different from the first. Rather than being contradictory, however, I would suggest that the poem is partly a story, the story of how we get from knowing only a part and not the whole, to how we start to consider perspectives above and beyond our own – truly social and more truly human perspectives. The poem is an encouragement to adopt these higher social perspectives.

Why is this essay in verse?

TJ: The kind of moral lessons Pope was trying to make available were, he thought, best communicated and memorized when written in verse. The fact that fragments and couplets from this poem (and others by Pope) have achieved proverbial status (‘For Forms of Government let fools contest; / Whate’er is best administer’d is best’, III.303-4, is amongst the most famous from this poem) is good evidence for that claim. Pope also claimed he could be more concise in expressing these thoughts in rhymed verse. He probably meant that he could communicate exactly what he wanted to in exactly the right number of words, with the slightest possible chance of misinterpretation. But since Pope’s time we have tended also to value poetry not for saying just enough, but for saying too little or too much, and leaving us some work to do with what is missing or what is left over. As well as the memorable quality of its maxims, the poem also gives us this pleasure, as we work out that time frames have been compressed in a single sentence, or that a particularly knotty sentence refers back to an earlier subject, or that the implications of a metaphor or comparison are much more disturbing that we would have thought. The compression and economy Pope was aiming at for the sake of clarity can also produce revealing complexities.

Does Pope make a distinctive contribution to ethical theory or to philosophy more broadly?

TJ: Reason and the passions were often put in opposition to one another in the philosophy of the Renaissance and early Enlightenment. Pope was one of the writers who rehabilitated the passions, even saying that passions could become virtues if they had a tendency towards social goods (II.97-100). Pope also has a view that passions emerge over the course of time and tend to reinforce themselves in daily behavior, so he was a philosopher of custom who edges towards what we might anachronistically call a description of the formation of neural pathways (II.128ff). And, moving from the individual to the species, he had a view that social practices and virtues emerge over the course of human history (III.169ff). So in some ways he is an early instance of, even an inspiration to, philosophers of custom of the later Enlightenment – philosophers like David Hume.

That leads on to another question: Who read the poem and what were their reactions to it?

TJ: It’s hard to overstate how widely and enthusiastically this poem was read. Originally published anonymously, it was positively received for its philosophical and religious views. There were critical responses too, some of which accused Pope of denying free will and of identifying God as the soul of the material world. But the poem was widely echoed and imitated in English poetry, and philosophers with interests in politics, cosmology, metaphysics, social norms and many other topics picked up on phrases, images and arguments from the poem in their published work. I find it particularly interesting to trace the connections between Pope’s writing on the problem of limited human perception in a potentially limitless universe and Immanuel Kant’s work on cosmology and the sublime. Kant cited Pope’s poem in an early work, and his distinction between the mind’s limited capacity empirically to conceive of particular numbers, and its simultaneously existing purely rational capacity to conceive of the infinite may count Pope amongst its inspirations.

Who were Pope’s great inspirations?

TJ: Broadly, those philosophers and theologians who see that the world in front of them is sufficiently bad for the existence of a divine providence to require serious explanation, but who nonetheless believe that such explanations can be given. That’s a very diverse group, and some of the most tempting candidates include people we can’t be certain Pope had read – Plotinus and Leibniz, for example. Amongst the people we know Pope read there are philosophical poets like Lucretius, whose atomism and naturalism might have appealed to Pope, but whose assertion of the indifference or non-existence of the gods was unacceptable to most of Pope’s audience. There are also French essayists of different kinds, many of whom responded antagonistically to one another, such as Montaigne and Pascal. Pope is close to both these writers – to Montaigne on the narrow distinction between animal instinct and human reason, for example, and to Pascal on the pragmatic value of superficial social distinctions such as rank – but Pascal had reacted very strongly to Montaigne’s more moderate form of Christian skepticism: Pascal wanted to reassert the divine reason behind what could appear to be merely arbitrary custom. So like many great writers Pope draws on his predecessors and contemporaries for ideas and images, but his real work is in the imaginative transformation of those sources in the construction of an original vision of humankind, whose natural sociability emerges through a particular institutional history, whose reason and passions are sometimes collaborators in the production of distinctively human virtues, who recognize their limits but nonetheless always aim to broaden the scope of what is contained by them.

Tom Jones teaches English at the University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland. He is the author of Poetic Language: Theory and Practice from the Renaissance to the Present and Pope and Berkeley: The Language of Poetry and Philosophy.

Justin E. H. Smith: How philosophy came to disdain the wisdom of oral cultures

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This piece appears simultaneously at Aeon Magazine. Check out our partnership page with Aeon here.

Smith jacketA poet, somewhere in Siberia, or the Balkans, or West Africa, some time in the past 60,000 years, recites thousands of memorised lines in the course of an evening. The lines are packed with fixed epithets and clichés. The bard is not concerned with originality, but with intonation and delivery: he or she is perfectly attuned to the circumstances of the day, and to the mood and expectations of his or her listeners.

If this were happening 6,000-plus years ago, the poet’s words would in no way have been anchored in visible signs, in text. For the vast majority of the time that human beings have been on Earth, words have had no worldly reality other than the sound made when they are spoken.

As the theorist Walter J Ong pointed out in Orality and Literacy: Technologizing the Word (1982), it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, now to imagine how differently language would have been experienced in a culture of ‘primary orality’. There would be nowhere to ‘look up a word’, no authoritative source telling us the shape the word ‘actually’ takes. There would be no way to affirm the word’s existence at all except by speaking it – and this necessary condition of survival is important for understanding the relatively repetitive nature of epic poetry. Say it over and over again, or it will slip away. In the absence of fixed, textual anchors for words, there would be a sharp sense that language is charged with power, almost magic: the idea that words, when spoken, can bring about new states of affairs in the world. They do not so much describe, as invoke.

As a consequence of the development of writing, first in the ancient Near East and soon after in Greece, old habits of thought began to die out, and certain other, previously latent, mental faculties began to express themselves. Words were now anchored and, though spellings could change from one generation to another, or one region to another, there were now physical traces that endured, which could be transmitted, consulted and pointed to in settling questions about the use or authority of spoken language.

Writing rapidly turned customs into laws, agreements into contracts, genealogical lore into history. In each case, what had once been fundamentally temporal and singular was transformed into something eternal (as in, ‘outside of time’) and general. Even the simple act of making everyday lists of common objects – an act impossible in a primary oral culture – was already a triumph of abstraction and systematisation. From here it was just one small step to what we now call ‘philosophy’.

Homer’s epic poetry, which originates in the same oral epic traditions as those of the Balkans or of West Africa, was written down, frozen, fixed, and from this it became ‘literature’. There are no arguments in the Iliad: much of what is said arises from metrical exigencies, the need to fill in a line with the right number of syllables, or from epithets whose function is largely mnemonic (and thus unnecessary when transferred into writing). Yet Homer would become an authority for early philosophers nonetheless: revealing truths about humanity not by argument or debate, but by declamation, now frozen into text.

Plato would express extreme concern about the role, if any, that poets should play in society. But he was not talking about poets as we think of them: he had in mind reciters, bards who incite emotions with living performances, invocations and channellings of absent persons and beings.

It is not orality that philosophy rejects, necessarily: Socrates himself rejected writing, identifying instead with a form of oral culture. Plato would also ensure the philosophical canonisation of his own mentor by writing down (how faithfully, we don’t know) what Socrates would have preferred to merely say, and so would have preferred to have lost to the wind. Arguably, it is in virtue of Plato’s recording that we might say, today, that Socrates was a philosopher.

Plato and Aristotle, both, were willing to learn from Homer, once he had been written down. And Socrates, though Plato still felt he had to write him down, was already engaged in a sort of activity very different from poetic recitation. This was dialectic: the structured, working-through of a question towards an end that has not been predetermined – even if this practice emerged indirectly from forms of reasoning only actualised with the advent of writing.

The freezing in text of dialectical reasoning, with a heavy admixture (however impure or problematic) of poetry, aphorism and myth, became the model for what, in the European tradition, was thought of as ‘philosophy’ for the next few millennia.

Why are these historical reflections important today? Because what is at stake is nothing less than our understanding of the scope and nature of philosophical enquiry.

The Italian philosopher of history Giambattista Vico wrote in his Scienza Nuova (1725): ‘the order of ideas must follow the order of institutions’. This order was, namely: ‘First the woods, then cultivated fields and huts, next little houses and villages, thence cities, finally academies and philosophers.’ It is implicit for Vico that the philosophers in these academies are not illiterate. The order of ideas is the order of the emergence of the technology of writing.

Within academic philosophy today, there is significant concern arising from how to make philosophy more ‘inclusive’, but no interest at all in questioning Vico’s order, in going back and recuperating what forms of thought might have been left behind in the woods and fields.

The groups ordinarily targeted by philosophy’s ‘inclusivity drive’ already dwell in the cities and share in literacy, even if discriminatory measures often block their full cultivation of it. No arguments are being made for the inclusion of people belonging to cultures that value other forms of knowledge: there are no efforts to recruit philosophers from among Inuit hunters or Hmong peasants.

The practical obstacles to such recruitment from a true cross-section of humanity are obvious. Were it to happen, however, the simple process of moving from traditional ways of life into academic institutions would at the same time dilute and transform the perspectives that are deserving of more attention. Irrespective of such unhappy outcomes, there is already substantial scholarship on these forms of thought accumulated in philosophy’s neighbouring disciplines – notably history, anthropology, and world literatures – to which philosophers already have access. It’s a literature that could serve as a corrective to the foundational bias, present since the emergence of philosophy as a distinct activity.

As it happens, there are few members of primary oral cultures left in the world. And yet from a historical perspective the great bulk of human experience resides with them. There are, moreover, members of literate cultures, and subcultures, whose primary experience of language is oral, based in storytelling, not argumentation, and that is living and charged, not fixed and frozen. Plato saw these people as representing a lower, and more dangerous, use of language than the one worthy of philosophers.

Philosophers still tend to disdain, or at least to conceive as categorically different from their own speciality, the use of language deployed by bards and poets, whether from Siberia or the South Bronx. Again, this disdain leaves out the bulk of human experience. Until it is eradicated, the present talk of the ideal of inclusion will remain mere lip-service.

Justin E. H. Smith is a professor of history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7. He writes frequently for The New York Times and Harper’s Magazine. His latest book is The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (2016).

Peter Lindert & Jeffrey Williamson: Will the rise in inequality ever stop?


By Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson

Could the steep rise in the share of income gains falling into the hands of the top one percent of Americans since the 1970s have been stopped, and will the rise stop in the near future? A newly revealed history of American growth and inequality suggests the answer is yes to both questions.* What is exceptional about recent American experience is that inequality has risen faster than in other rich countries. Furthermore, it has happened twice in our history – before the Civil War, and again since the 1970s. Without some exogenous crisis like revolution, war, and great depressions, does America have the political will to stop the widening of income gaps between the very rich and the rest?

How hard would it be to stop, or even reverse, the trend? The economics is easy. The politics may be harder. However, to make the policies politically acceptable, just follow a simple equality-growth rule: Make life chances more equal in a pro-growth manner. Prioritize those economic policies that have been shown to equalize people’s opportunities without doing any damage to the growth of our average incomes.

$100 bills lying on the sidewalk

Finding such win-win policies is easy. To see why it’s so easy, just remind yourself: Has our political system seized all the chances to make us richer and more equal at the same time? Of course not. Throughout American history politicians have failed to cash in on equitable growth opportunities, even though they are all around us like so many $100 bills left lying on the sidewalk.

Four easy win-win choices stand out when we compare our experience with that of other countries – and yes, the United States can learn positive lessons from other countries.

Early and basic education for all. The United States has slipped down the rankings in its delivery of early education since the 1960s. At the primary and secondary levels, other countries have caught up with us in years of school completed, and we rank about 27th among all tested countries in the quality of the math, science, and reading skills that students actually learn by age 15.

We are also below the OECD average in the enrollment of three- and four-year olds in early education-plus-care institutions, mainly because we are also below average in our commitment to both public and private funds in pre-primary education. A growing body of evidence shows high returns to early education. Providing it to all serves both equality and growth.

Investing in the careers of young parents with newborns. Our country lags behind all other developed countries in public support for parental work leave. We are failing to invest in both child development and mothers’ career continuity. All of society gains from the better nurturing of our children and the extra career continuity of their mothers, and all of society should help pay for parental leave, not shoving the whole burden onto the young parents or their employers. Other countries figured this out long ago.

Equal opportunity and the inheritance tax. We should return to the higher federal tax rates on top inheritances that we had in the past. This would force rich children receiving bequests to work harder, make Americans more equal, and, by leveling the playing field for new generations a bit, even promote economic growth. A return to a policy which dominated the twentieth century would deliver on the American claim that “in our country, individuals make their own way, with their own hard work and abilities.” To honor that claim, we should make sure that the top economic slots are not reserved for those born very rich. We have done it before. Our top rate of inheritance taxation was 77 percent from 1942 to 1977, years when American incomes grew at the fastest rate this country has ever attained. We haven’t achieved that growth performance since the policy was changed in the 1970s.

Taxing high inheritances is not anti-growth. Instead, it promotes productive work by those who would have inherited the top fortunes. Statistical studies have demonstrated the strength of the “Carnegie effect”. Carnegie was right: passing on huge inheritances undermines the heirs’ work incentives. We also need to stress that bigger inheritance taxes do not take income away from any living rich citizen who has earned it.

Riding herd on the financial sector. Since our Independence, the United States has been above average in its history of financial meltdowns. One could even say that America has been “exceptional” in that regard. Frequent bubbles, booms, and crashes have done great damage to our growth and our equality. The danger of future meltdowns remains, because the Dodd-Frank reforms of 2010 are weaker than the tougher regulatory reforms of the 1930s, which served us so well until the ill-advised de-regulation of the 1980s. More regulatory vigilance, government liquidation authority, and capital requirements are needed to prevent financial breakdowns that tax the non-rich to bail out the rich, and make the poor also pay by losing their jobs.

History is also clear on the inequality connection. When the financial sector was closely regulated in response to the Great Depression disaster, the incomes of the rich in the financial sector fell to more moderate levels. After de-regulation in the 1980s, incomes of the rich in the financial sector soared.

Picking up the easy money takes time – and votes

Implementing just these four win-win policies may or may not be enough to stop any trend toward more inequality, or to raise growth rates from their now-modest levels. We will have to push against a strong headwind coming from competition with poorer countries. Lower-skill jobs in this country will continue to suffer from the competition produced by the long-overdue catching up rise in Asian economies since the 1970s, and from Africa in the future. This new global competition is to be welcomed. There is no reason to wish that poor countries remain hobbled by the bad institutions that have impoverished them for so long. Yet the rising competition challenges the United States to continue to upgrade its own skills to keep ahead. All the more reason to upgrade our human capital.

It will take some time to do these things. Politicians and voters hate to wait for good results that are more than two years away. And such policies may face opposition from those who would not directly gain from such win-win policies.

Still, our democracy can achieve reforms that promote both growth and equality. We’ve done it before. We can do it again. That’s what elections are for.

* The findings reported here are substantiated in Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson, Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality since 1700 (Princeton University Press, 2016).

unequal gains lindert jacketPeter H. Lindert is Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of California, Davis. His books include Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century. He lives in Davis, California.

Jeffrey G. Williamson is the Laird Bell Professor of Economics, emeritus, at Harvard University. His books include Trade and Poverty: When the Third World Fell Behind. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Both are research associates at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Together they have written Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality Since 1700.

An interview with Biancamaria Fontana, author of Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait

Germaine de StaelGermaine de Staël (1766–1817) is perhaps best known today as a novelist, literary critic, and outspoken and independent thinker. Yet she was also a prominent figure in politics during the French Revolution. In her new book, Germaine de Staël: A Political PortraitBiancamaria Fontana sheds new light on this often overlooked aspect of Staël’s life and work, bringing to life her unique experience as a political actor in a world where women had no place. Recently, Fontana took the time to answer some questions about her book.

Though she is probably better known in France than in the English-speaking world, Germaine de Staël is already the subject of various biographies and literary studies. Why write another book about her?

BF: Staël’s reputation is indeed very high in her capacity as a novelist and literary critic; but her political activities and ideas are not so well known. Only her reputation as Napoleon’s vocal opponent has survived. But during the French Revolution, when she was in her early twenties, she was a very prominent political actor who tried to unite political factions and to promote the cause of modern representative government, though of course she could not sit in the National Assembly, except as a spectator; she was also barred from becoming a minister like some of her (male) political friends who owed their positions in government to her. As to her works on political theory, they are more original than it is generally assumed: she addressed novel issues such as the role of public opinion in modern society, the character of national cultures and the prospects of European unification.

She seems to have led a very glamorous life, frequenting castes and royal courts, associating with the high aristocracy, dining with monarchs…or is this just a modern fantasy?

BF: No doubt wealth was a very important factor in Staël’s life: her father, Jacques Necker, was a Swiss banker who became minister of the king of France; when she married at nineteen in 1786 she had one of the largest dowries in Europe, and, unusually, she remained in control of her own fortune even after her marriage. Her social position was also the source of much hostility: aristocrats despised her, as the daughter of a rich parvenu, while radical revolutionaries assumed she must necessarily be an agent of reaction. Although she did live in castles and palaces, she herself did not care much about high life; what mattered to her was being independent, and especially being able to associate with the people she regarded as politically and intellectually interesting, including some sovereigns old and new. One must not forget that hers was an age of extraordinary social mobility (think of Napoleon!), in which personal qualities proved often more important than rank and social status.

To what extent was her intellectual reputation conditioned by her gender? Can she be described as a feminist?

BF: The fact that she was a woman has certainly led even serious historians to assume that her political views were derivative and echoed those of the men close to her (while the reverse was often true). Similarly commentators tend to describe her as an over-active salon hostess and to regard her political canvassing as backstage intrigue. She was very conscious of the fact that being a woman made her more vulnerable to public attacks (indeed she was often the target of sexual insults and calumnies), and took great care to avoid any occasion for scandal. But she did not spend much time complaining about such limitations: she was very pragmatic and took them in stride, making the most of the opportunities offered to her. She was not a militant feminist like, say, Mary Wollstonecraft, but she gave an extraordinary demonstration of what a politically minded woman was capable of.

We tend to consider celebrity as an essentially contemporary phenomenon. Yet in the book you describe Staël as uneasy about her own celebrity. Was this really already an issue in the 18th century?

BF: The development and greater freedom of the press in the 18th century, and especially during the French Revolution, did promote the phenomenon of celebrity, as writers and artists, generals and politicians competed for public attention. Indeed some contemporary observers were very worried by what they saw as the replacement of true moral and intellectual distinction with ephemeral fame. Staël was especially concerned with the decline of aesthetic and moral standards, as she considered the quality of public discourse an essential precondition for the political development of modern societies. She was also embarrassed by the fact that her unusual situation made her famous, before she had the opportunity to “deserve” to be known by the wider public. All her life she tried very hard to merit the status she finally achieved, that of a major international intellectual figure.

What, if anything, can we learn from her views on politics?

BF: Staël is generally described as a “liberal” thinker, someone who supported the values of freedom, moderate government and the limitation of power against the authoritarianism of both monarchical and popular regimes. This of course is broadly speaking true; however what is really interesting about her views is not the fact that she defended a set of abstract values, but that she showed how difficult it was, in any real context, to put them into practice: how can you be a liberal when faced with political instability, international economic crisis, terrorism or military conquest? What I find especially prophetic about her writings is the fact that she saw popular opinion as the true source of the stability and legitimacy of any political system. The question she could not stop asking herself was: what does really give shape to collective mentalities and sentiments? Is it education, cultural or religious identities, or simply the ephemeral influence of fashionable views and ideologies?

This is probably a bit far fetched, but while preparing this book you must have spent some time trying to get inside her world; what would have been like, in your view, to be in her company, as a friend or social acquaintance?

BF: She was, by all accounts a fascinating conversationalist, a great flatterer, but also impossibly overbearing if you had anything to do with her at close range. Her energy, her relentless activity and appetite for company could be exhausting. However she was an extremely loyal friend, especially to women. She was very generous, did not take offence easily, and during the difficult years of the Revolution helped and supported the less fortunate of her acquaintances, including some who had never been especially nice to her. When Marie Antoinette was on trial, she took the risk of publishing a pamphlet in her defense, in spite of the fact that the queen had always treated her with disdain. Even in the writings of those contemporaries who disliked her, you cannot find a single episode in which she acted in a mean or resentful manner.

Biancamaria Fontana is professor of the history of political ideas at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Her books include Montaigne’s Politics (Princeton), Benjamin Constant and the Post-Revolutionary Mind, and Rethinking the Politics of Commercial Society. Most recently she has written Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait.

Cicero on Going Emeritus

Guest post by Michael Fontaine, Acting Dean of Faculty, Cornell University.

Michael Fontaine

© Joe Wilensky/Cornell University

When a long and fulfilling career comes to an end, what do you do next? Seriously, what do you do?

That question came to mind over and over last week, when I suddenly found myself tapped to host a celebration for newly retired faculty at Cornell University. I teach Latin in the Classics department there, and this past semester I’ve been the acting dean of faculty. What on earth was I to say? I was told to speak off the cuff for five or ten minutes, but for someone who’s only just entering middle age, it’s hard to know what gems of wisdom could possibly sound sincere. What could unite a distinguished group of intellectuals from different departments at a huge research university and resonate with them?

Then it hit me—Cicero’s essay On Old Age! I’d been passing Philip Freeman’s new translation around to relatives and recommending it to friends since it came out a couple months ago. I grabbed my copy and marked out a half-dozen passages for the Provost and me to take turns reading. I worried that the title Freeman gave the essay, How to Grow Old, might put people off, so I had to be careful how I introduced the book. It could have blown up in my face.

But it didn’t blow up. The crowd loved it.

The context was crucial. I began by pointing out that Cicero’s title, De Senectute, could also be translated “On Old Age” or “On Retirement” or “On Turning 60.” I then pointed out that like Barack Obama, Cicero was a politician who rose from humble beginnings to achieve Rome’s highest office. He became consul—the equivalent of president—in 63 BC, and he did it purely through his sensational gift of public speaking. In his year in office, Cicero thwarted a terrorist attack and survived an attempt on his life, and wound up being hailed as a second founder of Rome. And in his spare time, he was a devotee of philosophy, poetry, and political theory—a real thinker.

I also pointed out that the speaker of the dialogue, Cato the Elder, was a man much like Cicero—or themselves. He enjoyed a tremendous career and then had to figure out what to do with his newfound spare time. That is surely why our first extract was the most popular of all:

So you see how old age, far from being feeble and sluggish, can be very active, always doing and engaged in something, as it follows the pursuits of earlier years. And you should never stop learning, just as Solon in his poetry boasts that while growing old he learned something new every day. I’ve done the same, teaching myself Greek as an old man. I have seized on this study like someone trying to satisfy a long thirst…. I have heard that Socrates learned as an old man to play the lyre, that favorite instrument of the ancients. I wish I could do that as well, but at least I’ve applied myself diligently to literature. (pp. 55-7)

Retirement is perfect for learning new languages—and Latin is one of the most popular choices. These faculty knew exactly what Cicero meant. They got the point of the next one, too, but not in the way I expected:

What indeed could be more pleasant than an old age surrounded by the enthusiasm of youth? For surely we must agree that old people at least have the strength to teach the young and prepare them for the many duties of life. What responsibility could be more honorable than this?… And no one who provides a liberal education to others can be considered unhappy even if his body is failing with age. The excesses of youth are more often to blame for the loss of bodily strength than old age. (pp. 61-3)

I assumed Cicero’s point about liberal education and being surrounded by young people would resonate with those who had spent their careers in university teaching. In the event, it was the final sentence that set of peals of laughter—and a few knowing smiles—from the crowd. Luckily, the Provost elevated the tone once more by reading our third extract:

We must fight, my dear Laelius and Scipio, against old age. We must compensate for its drawbacks by constant care and attend to its defects as if it were a disease. We can do this by following a plan of healthy living, exercising in moderation, and eating and drinking just enough to restore our bodies without overburdening them. And as much as we should care for our bodies, we should pay even more attention to our minds and spirits. For they, like lamps of oil, will grow dim with time if not replenished. And even though physical exercise may tire the body, mental activity makes the mind sharper. (pp. 73-5)

These words of advice never fail to win the attention and agreement of readers today; they seem to come right out of the latest self-help book for seniors. And because so many faculty look forward to retirement to at last devote more time to their research, I thought the next passage would hit home:

I am now working on the seventh book of my Origins [of Rome] and collecting all the records of our earliest history, as well as editing the speeches I delivered in famous cases. I am investigating augural, priestly, and civil law. I also devote much of my time to the study of Greek literature. And to exercise my memory, I follow the practice of the Pythagoreans and each evening go over everything I have said, heard, or done during the day. These are my mental gymnastics, the racecourses of my mind…. I also provide legal advice to my friends and frequently attend meetings of the Senate, where I propose topics for discussion and argue my opinion after pondering the issues long and hard. All this I do not with the strength of my body but with the force of my mind. (pp. 79-81)

This again brought forth giggles from the crowd, since many of them are active indeed in our faculty senate, but it was the phrase mental gymnastics that really caught their attention. It was a nice opportunity to point out that “gymnastics of the mind,” as Raffaella Cribiore has reminded us, is itself an ancient expression.

Retirees are a huge demographic that my field, Classics, ought to reach out to. Our outreach activities seem forever targeted toward the rising generation, but that’s a huge missed opportunity. We could, and should, do much more to think about other audiences for the classics—especially those for whom essays like De Senectute were written. That is the point of the final passage we chose for our celebration:

How wonderful it is for the soul when—after so many struggles with lust, ambition, strife, quarreling, and other passions—these battles are at last ended and it can return, as they say, to live within itself. There is no greater satisfaction to be had in life than a leisurely old age devoted to knowledge and learning. (p. 103)

Cicero is right. I recommend How to Grow Older to everyone out there who’s newly retired, or thinking about it.

Tonio Andrade: Animals as Weaponry

By Tonio Andrade

01 Firebird

(Source: Zeng Gongliang 曾公亮, Wu jing zong yao 武经总要, in Zhong guo bing shu ji cheng 中国兵书集成, Beijing: People’s Liberation Army Press, 1988, juan 11, huo gong [p. 512].)


Before guided missiles, humans had few ways to attack their enemies remotely, so they tried using animals. The Chinese were enthusiastic practitioners of this art. The firebird was a simple, if imprecise example. This image is from a Chinese military manual from the 1000s, and its accompanying text includes instructions: “Take a peach pit and cut it in half. Hollow out the middle and fill it with mugwort tinder. Then cut two holes and put it back together. Before this, capture from within the enemy’s territory some wild pheasants. Tie the peach pits to their necks, and then prick their tails with a needle and set them free. They will flee back into the grass, at which point the peach pits will let loose their fire.”

Fire Sparrows

(Source: Zeng Gongliang 曾公亮, Wu jing zong yao 武经总要, in Zhong guo bing shu ji cheng 中国兵书集成, Beijing: People’s Liberation Army Press, 1988, juan 11, huo gong [p. 512].)

Fire Sparrows

Pheasants might have been suitable to attack a foe in the field, but what if the enemy held a city? In this case one could use urban birds, deploying hundreds of them at a time to lay waste to enemy buildings. This image, from the same eleventh-century military manual, depicts fire sparrows, and the accompanying text explains how to prepare them: “Hollow out apricot pits and fill them with mugwort tinder. Then capture from the enemy’s town and warehouses several hundred sparrows. Tie the apricot pits to their legs and then add a bit of fire [to the tinder]. At dusk, when the flocks fly into the city to rest for the night, they will settle in large groups in the houses and buildings, and at this moment the fire will flame up.”

03 Fire Ox Image

(Source: Wu jing zong yao, juan 11, “huo gong”.)

Fire Ox

If birds proved too subtle, one could also use fire-oxen, such as the one depicted here. In this case, the fire is used less as an incendiary than as a motivator. One fit one’s ox with spears and then affixed straw soaked in oil to his or her tail. After it’s set alight, the ox would charge madly toward the enemy.

Thundering bomb fire-ox

(Source: Jiao Yu 焦玉 [attributed], Wu bei huo long jing 武備火龍經, 4 juans, Xianfeng ding yi year [1857], juan 2 [copy held in Nanyang Technological University Library, Singapore].)

Exploding Fire Ox

As the Chinese perfected gunpowder mixtures, they added bombs to these living weapons, as in this image, where we see a classical fire-ox, motivated to run by the burning reeds, with a bomb on its back. The bomb was timed to explode when the poor beast reached the enemy.

05 Rocket Cat Image

(Source: Franz Helm, Feuer Buech, durch Eurem gelertten Kriegs verstenndigen mit grossem Vleis…, Germany, c. 1584, copy held at University of Pennsylvania Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Ms. Codex 109, viewable online at http://dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/medren/detail.html?id=MEDREN_1580451.)

Firecat and Firebird

Europeans also used animals to deliver incendiaries. Here is an image of a cat and a bird, each with a sack of burning material attached to them. The idea was to kidnap a domestic cat from the enemy’s city, attach a sack of incendiary material to it, and then shoo it home. The idea was that it would then run and hide in a hay loft or barn, which would then, if things went as planned, catch on fire.

Gunpowder Age andradeTonio Andrade is professor of history at Emory University and the author of The Gunpowder Age, as well as Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West (Princeton) and How Taiwan Became Chinese.

National Poetry Month: Featured reading by Austin Smith

almanac smith jacketAustin Smith’s debut collection, Almanac, is a lyrical and narrative meditation on the loss of small family farms. Most of the poems are personal, set in the rural Midwest where Smith grew up. Though they are geographically specific, the greater themes such as death and perseverance are as universal as they are disquieting.

The collection is also a meditation on apprenticeship. Smith, the son of a poet, reflects on the responsibility of a young poet to mourn what is vanishing.

Listen to Austin Smith’s reading of his poem, “Coach Chance”.

austin smithAustin Smith was born in the rural Midwest. Most recently, he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University. He has written a collection of poems entitled Almanac: Poems.