Spotlight on…Philosophers and Mystics

A Short Life of Kierkegaard, by Walter Lowrie

A Short Life of Kierkegaard
by Walter Lowrie

The nineteenth century was a period of extraordinary advances in science and engineering that seemed to bring the dream of a comprehensive understanding of the physical world within reach. Yet it was also the century that gave us Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Kafka, three writers whose work expressed the subjective dimension of life, analyzed the role of human choice and will, and rejected a purely rationalist vision of existence.

To residents of Copenhagen in the first half of the nineteenth century, Søren Kierkegaard was a familiar sight, his striking figure daily walking the streets of the town. But few, if any, would have known that he was the author of several volumes of philosophy and theology – his early works were published under a series of unlikely pseudonyms, including Johannes de Silentio and Hilarius Bookbinder. Despite the oddness of his pen-names, Kierkegaard was deeply in earnest, and occupied his last years with an extended critique of the Church of Denmark in a series of pamphlets. His arguments that faith is rooted in an act of individual choice, not church ritual, and that state involvement corrupted the church, were highly influential, and his reputation grew rapidly after his early death in 1855. W. Lowrie’s A Short Life of Soren Kierkegaard is a perfect introduction to Kierkegaard’s life and work by one of his first English translators. For those willing to make a leap of faith and tackle Kierkegaard’s life in greater detail, Joakim Garff’s magisterial Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography is the definitive work.

As the subtitle of Walter Kaufman’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist suggests, Friedrich Nietzsche’s thoughts on religion were far removed from those of Kierkegaard. He derided Christian ethics as “slave morality” and proclaimed the need for the individual to overcome their social, cultural and moral context through the force of will. His radical ideas and poetic, allusive style were unsuccessful in his lifetime – he printed a mere forty copies of the fourth part of Thus Spake Zarathustra – but his influence has grown enormously in the century following his death, as much among writers and artists as philosophers.

Nietzsche eventually succumbed to insanity and lived the last years of his life in the care of his sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who edited his remaining manuscripts for publication after his death. It is often argued that she introduced an anti-semitic and nationalist slant that later made Nietzsche’s thought more appealing to the Nazis. However, were it not for similar efforts by Max Brod, none of Franz Kafka’s novels would have survived. On his deathbed, Kafka asked Brod to destroy his manuscripts and diaries, but convinced of Kafka’s genius, Brod instead chose to preserve them and edit them for publication. A perfectionist, Kafka could not bring himself to finish any of the novels, but even in their incomplete forms, the Trial and the Castle stand as undisputed classics. Reiner Stach’s monumental biography (Kafka: The Decisive Years, and Kafka: The Years of Insight) paints an astonishingly detailed picture of a deeply introspective writer and his life in Prague at the turn of the century.

Spotlight on…Scientists

Nikola Tesla, by W. Bernard Carlson

Nikola Tesla
by W. Bernard Carlson

Genius is no guarantee of public recognition. In this post we look at the changing fortunes and reputations of three very different scientists: Alan Turing, Nikola Tesla, and Albert Einstein.

With the success of the recent movie, the Imitation Game (based on Andrew Hodges’ acclaimed biography Alan Turing: The Enigma), it’s easy to forget that for decades after his death, Turing’s name was known only to computer scientists. His conviction for homosexual activity in 1950s Britain, his presumed suicide in 1954, and the veil of secrecy drawn over his code-breaking work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War combined to obscure his importance as one of the founders of computer science and artificial intelligence. The gradual change in public attitudes towards homosexuality and the increasing centrality of computers to our daily lives have done much to restore his reputation posthumously. Turing received an official apology in 2009, followed by a royal pardon in 2013.

Despite enjoying celebrity in his own lifetime, Nikola Tesla’s reputation declined rapidly after his death, until he became regarded as an eccentric figure on the fringes of science. His legendary showmanship and the outlandish claims he made late in life of inventing high-tech weaponry have made it easy for critics to dismiss him as little more than a charlatan. Yet he was one of the pioneers of electricity, working first with Edison, then Westinghouse to develop the technology that established electrification in America. W. Bernard Carlson’s Nikola Tesla tells the story of a life that seems drawn from the pages of a novel by Jules Verne or H. G. Wells, of legal battles with Marconi over the development of radio, of fortunes sunk into the construction of grandiose laboratories for high voltage experiments.

By contrast, the reputation of Albert Einstein seems only to have grown in the century since the publication of his General Theory of Relativity. He is perhaps the only scientist to have achieved iconic status in the public mind, his face recognized as the face of genius. Children know the equation e=mc2 even though most adults would struggle to explain its implications. From the publication of the four 1905 papers onwards, Einstein’s place in scientific history has been secure, and his work remains the cornerstone of modern understanding of the nature of the universe. We are proud to announce the publication of a special 100th anniversary edition of Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, and the recent global launch of our open access online archive from the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, the Digital Einstein Papers.

Spotlight on…Ancient Times

The Poison King, by Adrienne Mayor

The Poison King
by Adrienne Mayor

The ancient world presents formidable challenges for any biographer. In contrast to the wealth of documentation surrounding the careers of modern statesmen and thinkers, we often have only the most fragmentary information about their counterparts in the ancient world. The main sources are often writers who put pen to parchment decades or even centuries later. Our only knowledge of the words of Pericles come from three speeches recorded by Thucydides in his history of the Peloponnesian War, but Thucydides was working from memory, and it is often suggested that he sought to present Pericles’ oratory in a suitably heroic register rather than give a verbatim account. Despite the obstacles, an enduring fascination with ancient Greece and Rome has led many biographers to take up the challenge of putting a convincing picture together from the handful of pieces available.

Vincent Azoulay’s Pericles of Athens is a comprehensive reassessment of the life and influence of perhaps the greatest leader of the city-state that was the birthplace of democracy. Despite his success in steering the Athenians through two wars with Sparta, their rival for domination of the Greek world, even in his own time Pericles was a controversial figure. As leader of the Democratic faction in the Athenian assembly, Pericles pursued a policy of limiting the power of the elites and opening up public office to poorer sections of the citizenry. He has been accused of sowing the seed of the decline of Athenian democracy into populist demagogy and corruption, while others praise him for giving the state the broad base which allowed it to survive for another century after his death.

Aristotle. the leading philosopher of his age, left a substantial written legacy extending to nearly fifty volumes. Yet what survives is only a fraction of his work (perhaps as much as a third) and may largely derive from the notes of Aristotle’s students on his lectures. In Aristotle: His Life and School, Carlo Natali weighs up the often contradictory sources to give an account of a remarkable life that took Aristotle from his studies under Plato at the Academy to the court of Philip of Macedon where he was tutor to the young Alexander the Great.

Born in 120BC, two centuries after the death of Aristotle, Mithradates VI of Pontus was one of the most dangerous military opponents that the Roman Republic faced. In the course of three wars against Rome he expanded his Black Sea kingdom across modern Turkey to the Greek archipelago, before a Rome riven by faction and civil war ultimately defeated him through the brilliant generalship of Pompey. Adrienne Mayor’s gripping biography of Mithradates, The Poison King, takes its name from a practice that has become legendary. Having attained the throne of Pontus on the murder of his father through poisoning, Mithradates later built an immunity by consuming small doses of every known poison, and survived his own attempted assassination because of it.

Spotlight on…Mathematicians

John Napier, by Julian Havil

John Napier
by Julian Havil

Mathematics has long been a specialty of the Press, and mathematicians have been the subjects of many of our biographies. Julian Havil’s John Napier: Life, Logarithms and Legacy describes the life and thought of the inventor of logarithms. Napier’s work on logarithms, first published in 1614, established the efficient method of calculation that remained in widespread use until the development of computers over three hundred years later. Napier lived in an age when the boundaries between mathematics, science, religion and the occult were less clearly drawn: he attempted to predict the Apocalypse on the basis of the Book of Revelations and the Sibylline oracles, and was even alleged to be an alchemist and a necromancer.

A century later Leonhard Euler continued development of logarithms, but for Euler this was only one among dozens of mathematical innovations over the course of a brilliant and prolific career. Ronald Calinger’s Leonhard Euler: Mathematical Genius in the Enlightenment is the first full-scale biography of one of the great figures in mathematics. His tireless devotion to his work while at the court of Frederick the Great earned him the mockery of Voltaire, but his collected writings on topics ranging from calculus, number theory, and geometry to astronomy and optics are an extraordinary treasure trove of ideas. Despite near total blindness in the last two decades of his life, Euler’s prodigious memory and skill at mental calculation allowed him to continue working to his death, dictating to a team of scribes. He remains the only mathematician to have given his name to two numbers: the transcendental number (and base of natural logarithms) e, known as Euler’s number, and the Euler-Mascheroni constant.

Theoretical ability doesn’t always translate into practical applications, and Frederick the Great was unimpressed with Euler as an engineer. By contrast, Henri Poincaré worked in the French Corps des Mines throughout his life, eventually attaining the rank of Inspector General, while continuing to pursue his work in multiple fields in mathematics, physics and philosophy. Jeremy Gray’s Henri Poincaré: A Scientific Biography analyzes the lasting influence of a man that some argue was the true discoverer of relativity. Poincaré did not shy away from involvement in public affairs, acting as an expert witness to counter spurious claims by the prosecution in the Dreyfus trials that convulsed France.

Unusually for brilliant theoreticians, Euler and Poincaré also wrote for a popular audience – Letters of Euler on Different Subjects in Natural Philosophy Addressed to a German Princess was a bestseller in its time. In Undiluted Hocus-Pocus one of the great popularizers of our time, Martin Gardner, writes with characteristic wit about his own life. Gardner’s column in Scientific American, Mathematical Games, ran for 25 years – Cambridge University Press are currently working on a new edition of the fifteen volumes of the collected columns. No stranger to controversy, Gardner devoted much energy to combating pseudo-science, but is perhaps best known for the Annotated Alice, in which he explained in detail the mathematical trickery and literary wordplay of Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice books.

Spotlight on Biography

Kafka: The Decisive Years, by Reiner Stach

Kafka: The Decisive Years
by Reiner Stach

A good biography can offer unparalleled insight into the work of a great thinker, providing context for the development of their ideas. Is it possible to make a fair reading of The Prince without knowing the world of Florence in the age of the Medici? Does Kafka’s introspective life in fin de siècle Prague shed light on the dream-like atmosphere of “Metamorphosis” and The Trial? It would be hard to argue otherwise.

In the heyday of Michael Holroyd’s monumental lives of Lytton Strachey and George Bernard Shaw, it was often suggested that biography would replace the novel. These magisterial works owed nothing to fiction in terms psychological depth, literary quality or drama, and had the additional appeal of being factual. The novel has proven surprisingly resilient, but still it’s hard to imagine a more tragic story than that of Alan Turing, recently depicted in the film The Imitation Game. Public intellectuals such as Isaiah Berlin and Albert Hirschman led lives that slipped easily between cultures, from academia to bohemia, from finance to international diplomacy. Their biographies are expressions of the history of their time.

Over the next couple of weeks we will turn the spotlight on some of the many excellent biographies the Press has published in recent years, from one of the very founders of democracy to a pioneer of electricity.

Book launch video for Maimonides: Life and Thought

Moshe Halbertal, Gruss Professor of Law at NYU School of Law, and Noah Feldman, Bemis Professor of International Law at Harvard Law School, discuss Halbertal’s new book, Maimonides: Life and Thought.

Two for Tuesday – Kafka

Kafka-series-covers.inddIntroducing Reiner Stach’s acclaimed and definitive biography of Franz Kafka from Princeton University Press. Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was an influential writer of the 20th century and Reiner Stach spent more than a decade working with over four thousand pages of journals, letters, and literary fragments, many never before available, to re-create the atmosphere in which Kafka lived and worked. This impressive biography was translated by Shelley Frisch. We invite you to read the sample chapters linked below.

Kafka: The Decisive Years
This period from 1910-1915, which would prove crucial to Kafka’s writing and set the course for the rest of his life, saw him working with astonishing intensity on his most seminal writings–The Trial, The Metamorphosis, The Man Who Disappeared (Amerika), and The Judgment. These are also the years of Kafka’s fascination with Zionism; of his tumultuous engagement to Felice Bauer; and of the outbreak of World War I. It is at once an extraordinary portrait of the writer and a startlingly original contribution to the art of literary biography.

We invite you to read the Introduction online:

Kafka: The Years of Insight
This volume tells the story of the final years of the writer’s life, from 1916 to 1924–a period during which the world Kafka had known came to an end. Stach’s riveting narrative, which reflects the latest findings about Kafka’s life and works, draws readers in with a nearly cinematic power, zooming in for extreme close-ups of Kafka’s personal life, then pulling back for panoramic shots of a wider world scarred by World War I, disease, and inflation.

In these years, Kafka was spared military service at the front, yet his work as a civil servant brought him into chilling proximity with its grim realities. He was witness to unspeakable misery, lost the financial security he had been counting on to lead the life of a writer, and remained captive for years in his hometown of Prague. The outbreak of tuberculosis and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire constituted a double shock for Kafka, and made him agonizingly aware of his increasing rootlessness. He began to pose broader existential questions, and his writing grew terser and more reflective, from the parable-like Country Doctor stories and A Hunger Artist to The Castle.

A door seemed to open in the form of a passionate relationship with the Czech journalist Milena Jesenská. But the romance was unfulfilled and Kafka, an incurably ill German Jew with a Czech passport, continued to suffer. However, his predicament only sharpened his perceptiveness, and the final period of his life became the years of insight.

We invite you to read the Prologue online:

The first volume, covering Kafka’s childhood and youth, is forthcoming.