Jonathan Bate on How the Classics Made Shakespeare

Ben Jonson famously accused Shakespeare of having “small Latin and less Greek.” But he was exaggerating. Shakespeare was steeped in the classics. Shaped by his grammar school education in Roman literature, history, and rhetoric, he moved to London, a city that modeled itself on ancient Rome. He worked in a theatrical profession that had inherited the conventions and forms of classical drama, and he read deeply in Ovid, Virgil, and Seneca. In a book of extraordinary range, acclaimed literary critic and biographer Jonathan Bate, one of the world’s leading authorities on Shakespeare, offers groundbreaking insights into how, perhaps more than any other influence, the classics made Shakespeare the writer he became.

Is Shakespeare on par with the ancient Greek and Roman writers of the classics? What made him stand out, rather than his contemporaries?

Astonishingly, considering that the theatre was still a fairly disreputable profession in Shakespeare’s time, people began comparing his works to those of classical antiquity even in his lifetime. His poems were compared to those of Ovid, his comedies to Plautus and his tragedies to Seneca. A few years after his death, his fellow-dramatist Ben Jonson wrote a poem in his memory—it’s included in the First Folio—in which he claimed that Shakespeare’s plays actually surpassed those of the ancients. Given that Jonson himself was phenomenally learned in the classics, that was a striking claim indeed. It does immediately provoke the question: why has Shakespeare and not Jonson or any of the other fine dramatists of the Elizabethan age become our classic, the modern equivalent of Sophocles or Virgil? That’s a question I’ve explored in my earlier books on the history of Shakespeare’s posthumous reputation—I return to it in the final chapter of this book, where I look at the classical idea of “fame”—but the implicit answer I have found, in the several years it took to research and write How the Classics made Shakespeare, is that the sheer range of his work was unmatched by any contemporary. Jonson was more obviously compared to Horace, Spenser to Virgil and Bacon to Cicero, but Shakespeare seemed to combine the gifts of them all. Similarly, Marlowe was great in tragedy and Jonson in comedy, but Shakespeare was, as he wittily puts it himself in Hamlet, the master of every genre, “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.”

How important was it that Shakespeare’s audiences understand allusions to fables and myths? Did Elizabethan theatre-goers have greater cultural literacy than modern audiences at Shakespeare plays when it came to understanding these references?

This is a big theme—and an anxiety—in my book. You have to remember that Latin was the absolute core of the Elizabethan schoolroom curriculum. Grammar school meant Latin grammar, morning, noon and night. The history, literature, thought and culture of ancient Rome—and, to a lesser extent, Greece—was everywhere in education, in the Elizabethan frame of mind, even, I suggest, in the architecture and iconography of the city of London. The theatres themselves were designed on Roman models. This meant that anyone who was literate, and probably quite a few citizens who were not, would have known what Shakespeare was talking about when one of his characters mentioned Hercules or Julius Caesar or Lucrece or Adonis or Actaeon or Alcibiades and a hundred others. My anxiety is that with the decline in knowledge of classical literature, history and mythology, many such references now pass over the heads of playgoers and students. For example, I have a riff in the book that begins with an inscription on a funeral monument in a London church in the parish where Shakespeare lived and then goes into a reference to Jason and the Golden Fleece in The Merchant of Venice. Both the monument maker and the playwright clearly assumed that people would know that story—but not many of us know it now (though maybe it is handy that Disney has reanimated some of the old classical myths!).

In the book, you say that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights agreed that “a work was good not because it was original, but because it resembled an admired classical exemplar.” If there are only 7 basic plots under the sun, why do modern audiences and writers frown upon stories that aren’t “original” while also still appreciating Shakespeare for his ability to pay homage to the classics? 

I like to tell my students that they need to get the nineteenth-century Romantic idea of genius and originality out of their head when they think about how Shakespeare put his plays together. It’s better to find an analogy in the way that art students were trained for centuries: you begin by copying the works of the great masters—that is how you hone your technique— and then you start performing variations on classical themes. That is how you prove your ingenuity: by variation and embellishment, not starting with a blank canvas. My book grew from a series of lectures at the Warburg Institute in London: it was the Warburg scholars, such as E. H. Gombrich in whose memory the lectures were named, who did more than anyone else to help us to understand this Renaissance process of offering original re-presentations that engage in dialogue with what they called “the classical tradition.”

Plenty of people have accused Shakespeare of plagiarism, or of lacking sufficient training in Greek and Latin. What are some other common misconceptions about Shakespeare that you’d like to rebut?

These claims go back to Shakespeare’s own time and to the indignation of university-educated dramatists, such as Robert Greene (who called Shakespeare an “upstart crow”), upon witnessing the rapid rise to theatrical prominence of the man from the backwoods with only a grammar school education to his name. But we need to remember that the grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon produced some real talent—one of the schoolmasters was a published author of Latin verse, while Shakespeare’s fellow pupil Richard Field became a distinguished printer of books in many languages. The danger of the misconception created by jealous writers such as Greene is that it leads all too easily to the idea that Shakespeare couldn’t have been educated enough to write the plays … and that leads to all those ridiculous authorship conspiracy theories. The classical learning in the plays precisely matches that of the grammar school curriculum, with some later reading added on (notably the English translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans). The poems and plays are emphatically not written in the very different styles that we find among university-educated dramatists, Inns of Court trained lawyers, let alone aristocrats.

Is there any classic tale that Shakespeare reimagined that has made a lasting impression on you? 

I guess the one that has most haunted me is his adaptation of Ovid’s story of how the artist Pygmalion made a statue of a woman that was so beautiful that he fell in love with it and the gods then brought it to life. That’s an allegory of the power of aesthetic delight and a very sexy story, but also a slightly seedy one in which the woman is merely the object of desire. What is beautiful about Shakespeare’s reimagining is that the statue is not some abstract notion of female beauty, but a once and once again beloved wife who has been abused by unfounded male sexual jealousy and is then given back, so that the husband has a second chance—I’m talking, of course, about Hermione and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, where the reanimation at the end is an allegory of the power of theatrical magic (achieved through distinctively female agency in the form of Paulina) and at the same time a triumph of love as opposed to an act of sexual desire. The whole question of eros and its relation to theatre and to magic is at the heart of my book.

In your opinion, are there any writers from the past century who drew upon the classics and/or Shakespearean plots and might stand the test of time like Shakespeare still does today?

There was no guarantee that it would be Shakespeare rather than some other dramatist who became our immortal, and by the same account it would be a fool’s game to guess who will and who will not endure from the last hundred years. What does strike me, though, is that the poets whom I find myself reading—as Ben Jonson said we should read Shakespeare—“again and again” all seem to have been steeped in the classics, fascinated by the old stories and adept at translating, imitating and remaking them. I am thinking, for example, of W. B. Yeats, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. They were the poets who, along with Shakespeare, were my first “classics” when I was a teenager and a student.

Jonathan Bate is Provost of Worcester College and professor of English literature at the University of Oxford and Gresham Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College. His many books include Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare and an award-winning biography of Ted Hughes. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC, has been on the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is the coeditor of The RSC Shakespeare: Complete Works,

Yan Xuetong on Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers

XuetongWhile work in international relations has closely examined the decline of great powers, not much attention has been paid to the question of their rise. The upward trajectory of China is a particularly puzzling case. How has it grown increasingly important in the world arena while lagging behind the United States and its allies across certain sectors? Borrowing ideas of political determinism from ancient Chinese philosophers, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers explains China’s expanding influence by presenting a moral-realist theory that attributes the rise and fall of nations to political leadership. Yan Xuetong shows that the stronger a rising state’s political leadership, the more likely it is to displace a prevailing state in the international system. Using the lens of classical Chinese political theory, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers offers a provocative, alternative perspective on the changing dominance of nations on the global stage.

How did you come to make the connection between political leadership and the rise of great powers?

Reading Chinese political writings pre-Qin, I found that all ancient Chinese political thinkers attributed the prosperity or decline of a hegemon to its rulers. Since all of the ancient Chinese hegemons experienced the process of rise, boom, decline, and perish with no substantial change in the institution of those states, the only variable ancient Chinese thinkers could identify was the change in leadership quality. As such, it raised, for me, two questions: how does an effectively similar political institution bring about different results and why does the rise and fall of hegemons correspond to different leaderships when the institution remains unchanged?

What is your book bringing to the conversation on the rise of great powers that hasn’t been addressed before?

Most of the IR literature on the rise of great powers focuses on a specific strategy for obtaining international leadership and then dissects why that strategy works. Meanwhile, IR writings often explain the rise and fall of great powers with different factors. For instance, imperial over-expansion is often applied as one of the main factors to a hegemon’s decline while technology invention to its rise. In contrast, this book takes a leadership-focused approach and brings to attention the human element in political decision making and demonstrates how the mentality of the leadership contributes to the effective rise and fall of hegemons. The leadership focused approach integrates three levels of analysis: individual, state and system. This approach not only offers an explanation for the rise and fall of great powers, but it can also explain the changes in international configurations, norms, orders, and systems.

Can you say a bit about the connection between ancient Chinese philosophy and modern political theory?

Ancient Chinese philosophical writings offer many analyses about the relations between ancient Chinese states that are applicable to modern international relations. This is because pre-Qin China was composed of many independent states that were vying for power in a manner that resembles current international jockeying. For the ancient Chinese philosophers, China constituted the entirety of the known world, whereas for modern scholars, the geographical range for the known world has expanded to encompass the entire planet. However, although the geographical size has expanded, there remains a structural parallel between current international entities and those of the interstate relations of the pre-Qin era. As such, generalized observations by ancient philosophers about the patterns of interaction amongst sovereign entities of power remain relevant in the modern era. This is much like how Art of War by Sunzi has been scaled down to derive insight towards modern military affairs. For instance, ancient Chinese philosophers described the differences between wangdao (humane authority) and badao (hegemony) in establishing and maintaining interstate order. This distinction is also applicable to how international norms work in current global system.

What do the ancients have to tell us on a topic that is generally thought to be firmly grounded in the present?

Ancient Chinese philosophers tell us that the order of a social system, no matter domestic or interstate, is based on a hierarchical relationship among its actors. Absolutely equal relations results in chaos. Any form of organization requires the existence of leaders and subordinates. Absolute equality leads to mob justice, as seen in the social bullying that occurs on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms where there are no accepted community leaders. Therefore, political leadership is the prerequisite of all types of structured relations and social orders. It follows that different types of leadership produce different social orders. The uncertainty of the present international politics since 2017 is mainly the result of a lackadaisical and confrontational international leadership. People may have different explanations for the lack of a reputable international leadership, but they generally agree that its absence is the major reason for the current disorder.

What accounts for China lagging behind other developed nations, even as it becomes increasingly important on the world stage?

China’s material capability is second only to that of the US. Nevertheless, China is not viewed as an international leader by the developed countries mainly because its political system is based on a cult of personality rather than the rule of law. A cult of personality is more efficient for governance than the rule of law, but it is far more susceptible to catastrophic disasters because of its restriction on freedom of expression. For the sake of preventing disasters and compelling state leaders to correct their wrong decisions, it is worthwhile for major powers to consider establishing a remonstrant system, which was a popular institution of central government in ancient China.

Do nations always rise at the expense of other nations?

Yes. There is a zero-sum structural conflict between rising powers and the status hegemon. “The rise of great powers” is defined as a process of a rising power reducing the capability gap with the status hegemon until it surpasses the latter. Since all hegemons regard maintaining international domination as their strategic interest, being surpassed by a rising power represents a huge loss. Meanwhile, due to the zero-sum nature of power distribution, the rise of a new great power must bring about a relative decline of other major powers’ international status, even as their absolute capabilities continue to grow.

What are some examples of the political leaders who have contributed to China’s rise, and how exactly did they have this positive impact?

The Chinese government headed by Deng Xiaoping represents a proactive political leadership contributing to China’s rise. The core of Deng’s political principles were opening-up and reform. “Opening-up” guarantees the right direction of reform and “reform” replaces the outdated methods with current advancements. That is why all the three leaderships after Deng flag that principle as their political guideline. Although the reforms after Deng have not been as dramatic, Chinese leaders have implemented more reforms than their concurrent counterparts in other major powers. While it is true that since 1978 Chinese leaders have all adopted some regressive policies that undermined the growth of national capability, these harmful policies were less detrimental to national growth than the policies of their counterparts in other major powers.

Within the framework of your argument, what accounts for the diminishing international stature of the United States?

The relative decline of the US is the result of having less positive political reform than China since the end of the Clinton administration. The Bush administration adopted an aggressive leadership, which prioritized military expansion abroad over political reform at home. Obama’s administration was unsuccessful at implementing political reform despite its best intentions to do so. Trump’s administration is an economically aggressive leadership, adopting regressive policies rather than reform. Trump’s policy of abandoning international leadership provides a strategic opportunity for China to improve its international influence. However, Trump’s leadership is not unique to his time. At present, the leaderships of many major powers are similar to Trump’s authoritarian rule. The result of current strategic competition between major powers is likely to be determined by leadership which undermines national growth rather than implementing reforms.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

First, I hope this book helps policy makers realize that the growth of national capability is determined by the reforms implemented by the nation’s leadership and that capability of a leader can be determined by how much reform they can implement. Second, I hope IR scholars will pay attention to the role of political leadership, especially international leadership, in their analysis of international changes after reading this book. Third, I hope readers are inspired to vote for their national leaders based on the reforms their candidates have accomplished in their political careers rather than their rhetoric.

Yan Xuetong is professor of political science and dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His many books include Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power.

Marion Turner on Chaucer: A European Life

More than any other canonical English writer, Geoffrey Chaucer lived and worked at the centre of political life—yet his poems are anything but conventional. Edgy, complicated, and often dark, they reflect a conflicted world, and their astonishing diversity and innovative language earned Chaucer renown as the father of English literature. Marion Turner, however, reveals him as a great European writer and thinker. To understand his accomplishment, she reconstructs in unprecedented detail the cosmopolitan world of Chaucer’s adventurous life, focusing on the places and spaces that fired his imagination.

What compelled you to write a biography about Chaucer that focuses on place rather than chronological events in his life?  

I was trying to find a way to get under his skin. Although we have an extraordinary amount of information about Chaucer—mainly because he was a government servant, and records were meticulously kept—we don’t have personal letters, diaries, recollections, the kind of material biographers of more recent subjects can access. But I realised that I could get into his head—his imagination—by focusing on his environment: the art he saw, the streets he travelled, the kinds of buildings and structures he lived in. He had an extraordinarily adventurous life—travelling to multicultural communities in the Iberian peninsular, being taken prisoner and ransomed in the Hundred Years War, travelling at least twice to Italy, picking up manuscripts on the way, seeing slave markets in Genoa and the art of Giotto in Florence. Some of my chapters focus on actual places, such as Navarre, Vintry Ward in London, or Reims; others on more conceptual spaces such as Peripheries, Thresholds, and the Cage; and others on institutions such as the Inn, the Great Household, and the Abbey. For me, this structure enabled me to get inside Chaucer’s world, to think, for instance, about what it was like to live in a much more public way than we do now. And this structure also allowed me to follow particular themes and threads more organically than a strictly chronological structure would. At the same time, I am interested in the development of his imagination across time—in how he became the poet of the Canterbury Tales—so I did maintain a rough chronology, with the book divided into three parts that each span a phase of his life. One wonderful thing is that many of the places that mattered in Chaucer’s life can still be viewed today—the walls and Tower of London, for instance, or the medieval town of Olite in Navarre. I found tracing his footsteps to be profoundly important as I researched the book.

Why was writing a narrative poem in English so revolutionary in the 14th century? What was particularly challenging about that task, from a linguistic and stylistic standpoint?

People had been writing long poems in English before Chaucer, and indeed there is an unbroken tradition of poetry in English going back to Beowulf and even earlier. But it wasn’t a prestigious language in Chaucer’s day—the prestigious languages were French and Latin, and English was very much the poor relation. Then things started to change, and Chaucer was at the forefront of that change. In the second half of the fourteenth century, Chaucer was part of an upsurge in the production of texts in English—other poets, such as Gower, Langland and the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were also writing in English, religious writers including the female author Julian of Norwich were beginning to write texts, and English was increasingly used in government—for instance in the law courts.

Chaucer was an innovator in what he did with English. At this time, court poets were writing in French, and it was completely new to write a courtly love poem—these were called ditz amoureux—in English. When Chaucer wrote his first long poem, the Book of the Duchess, it was very much in the style of French poets, such as Machaut and Froissart. Chaucer then went into a kind of experimental frenzy—he developed all kinds of new verse forms, and really pushed the boundaries of what English poetry could do. Most notably, he invented the iambic pentameter—the ten syllable, five stress line that became the building block of English poetry, and was used by later poets such as Shakespeare. Chaucer had to borrow a lot of words from other languages, and invent new words, to expand what English could do. He even complains in one short poem about the scarcity of words in English. Indeed, he was so newfangled that he invented the word newfangled!

Clearly, Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the most important figures in the English literary canon because of his myriad contributions to the language and the poetic form. Is there anything that readers might find surprising?

So many things. The idea of Chaucer as father of English literature came about after his death, in the fifteenth century, and has gathered momentum ever since then. But in many ways, it really misrepresents him, and makes people think of him as a rather establishment, patriarchal, national figure. One of the things that I want to get across in this book is that he was a great European figure—and that for Chaucer the idea that being English somehow meant not being European would have been crazy. His choice to write in English was very much inspired by what Italian poets (such as Dante and Boccaccio) had been doing—he was part of an international trend to focus on more accessible vernaculars, rather than prestigious, exclusive languages. His life was outward-facing—he travelled a great deal, was multilingual, and in London was living at the heart of global trade networks. You could buy spices from Indonesia in London in the fourteenth century, and Chaucer’s childhood ward had more immigrants living there than any other London ward.

And much of Chaucer’s writing is indeed focused on the importance of allowing different kinds of people to read and to tell stories. In contrast to his sources, when Chaucer wrote a tale-collection he ostentatiously made sure that the tellers were from myriad social groups, and refused to allow principles of hierarchy to dictate the order of the tales. Another great example is his dream poem, the House of Fame, a poem which attacks the idea of the canon, and emphasises that a poet or storyteller can’t only rely on old books—they have to go to the streets, listen to their neighbours’ gossip, find inspiration in life as well as libraries. Literature, for Chaucer, was dynamic and living, and that is one reason why it has survived so well and continues to inspire so many contemporary poets to make their own creations. He’d have loved that!

A particularly disturbing anecdote from the book reveals that Chaucer was very likely accused of raptus, or rape, though this is hotly contested by literary critics who hold that his treatment of female characters made him more sympathetic towards women in general. What does this shred of evidence mean for us as readers, when we’re forced to grapple with the overlap between an important writer’s public and private lives, or between their works of fiction and their reality? 

That’s such a difficult question, and it has many parts to it. I suppose the key question here is what is the relationship between life and works? It seems to me to be very dangerous to assume that because someone shows sympathy to women in their writings, or music, or films, they could not also be personally violent towards them. Whatever Chaucer, or Marlowe, or Ezra Pound did or thought does not, ultimately, affect my judgement of their art. And if we only read works written by people of whose opinions and actions we approved, we’ll certainly be intellectually impoverished. I do think there is a difference if we are talking about people such as Roman Polanski, or Michael Jackson, whose victims are still alive today—a difference in terms of our sensitivity towards and respect for those people. A separate question is whether Chaucer was indeed guilty of this accusation—and that remains an open question, which scholars are still debating, and which I do talk more about in the book. I’m also interested in many aspects of his relationships with women in this biography—in particular his daughter, whom no one has written about before, and his first employer, Elizabeth de Burgh, who dressed him in scandalously tight trousers when he was a teenage page.

What do you hope that readers take away from Chaucer? 

One of the mantras of the Canterbury Tales is ‘diverse men, diversely they said.’ In other words, different people have different opinions. Chaucer himself is profoundly interested in perspective, in the idea that what you see depends on where you are standing—both literally and metaphorically, That’s something that contemporary scientists and artists were interested in too, as men such as Oresme debated about the rotation of the earth, for instance. In the Tales, Chaucer shows us that the same tale can be told in contrasting ways by different tellers; that readers or listeners will interpret stories in varying ways; and that no one interpretation is final or authoritative. I hope that readers will be caught by surprise and interest when they read about the global medieval world, or about Chaucer’s preoccupation with imagining astral flight, or about Chaucer’s role looking after the king’s falcons, or about what it was like to be imprisoned in 1359, or about Chaucer’s journeys amongst Jewish and Muslims communities, to give a few examples. But mainly I hope that each reader finds something that fascinates them, something that maybe challenges a previously-held assumption or belief—but what that is might be different for each reader.

Marion Turner is associate professor of English at Jesus College, University of Oxford.

 

 

 

Justin Smith on Irrationality

It’s a story we can’t stop telling ourselves. Once, humans were benighted by superstition and irrationality, but then the Greeks invented reason. Later, the Enlightenment enshrined rationality as the supreme value. Discovering that reason is the defining feature of our species, we named ourselves the “rational animal.” But is this flattering story itself rational? In this sweeping account of irrationality from antiquity to today—from the fifth-century BC murder of Hippasus for revealing the existence of irrational numbers to the rise of Twitter mobs and the election of Donald Trump—Justin Smith says the evidence suggests the opposite. From sex and music to religion and war, irrationality makes up the greater part of human life and history.

What led you to write a book about irrationality?

I had long supposed that human thought and behavior have been a relatively static thing for the past 200,000 years, that there is a fairly narrow range of species-specific responses to the world around us, and that these are not going to fundamentally change until or unless we become a different sort of animal. The past few years have tested this long-held assumption. I came to feel that the world was going mad, that many people, including many I know and love, were now speaking and reasoning as if they had passed through to the other side of a looking-glass, or had come back from the other side, and were now communicating in a frenetic glossolalia or in pretend robot-voices. And it terrified me. I began to wonder whether this is not a normal process of disillusionment one can expect to go through at a certain stage of life, when the scales fall from our eyes and we realize that human beings have been bonkers all along and that society is just a flimsy tarp that camouflages this madness, or whether, instead, there really is something important about the present moment that is bringing the irrationality out, like methane from below the ice of the melting tundra. It seemed to me the best way to answer this question would be to investigate it historically, with a maximally sweeping view, attempting so to speak a genealogy of irrationality, one which reaches back into the past, but always with an eye to understanding the present. 

You say that irrationality is ineliminable from human life. Why do you think humans are so inherently irrational? Why doesn’t it seem to matter to us if there are facts that directly contradict our irrationally-held beliefs?

The point of emphasizing its ineliminability is that, again at least until we become a different sort of animal by evolution or by genetic engineering, harm to human beings will be reduced if we understand irrationality as something to be managed, in the way we manage our proneness to tooth decay and do not simply knock our teeth out and replace them with dentures, rather than as something to be obliterated, like polio or cancer. Historically, every attempt at structuring society in a perfectly rational way has been a folly, and has resulted in tremendous individual suffering, in part because the human beings made to endure such political projects remain exactly the same inwardly as humans in those societies that have found effective ways to manage all our dark impulses and unjustifiable but beautiful attachments rather than simply to suppress them. In this respect my argument is kind of boring in its centrism and its attachment to the golden mean, but it also discerns, I think, an important dialectical connection between the two poles in question: do not become too devoted to reason, or you will be pulled over into the opposite extreme. 

Can groups like LessWrong ever really eliminate irrational decision-making as it relates to artificial intelligence and business operations?

Of course not. As I say in the book, they’d be a lot better off just reading some Virgil or Shakespeare and not worrying so much about whether it’s helping them to better apply Bayesianism to their daily lives, rather than acting as if human flourishing is equivalent to making rationally justifiable choices. I mean, obviously, if you spend your days writing Harry Potter fan-fiction, which seems to be a thing in that subculture, something has gone very wrong, and no amount of formal epistemology or probability theory can rescue you from what appears to an outsider to that subculture as an obviously bad choice, not just of how to spend one’s time, but of a whole form of life. 

Is there any benefit to thinking or behaving irrationally?

Sometimes, but it can also kill you, so you need to make your decisions wisely. Sometimes it’s a good idea to smoke; sometimes it’s a good idea to be foolhardy in combat; sometimes it’s a good idea to free solo climb El Capitan. Other times it’s not. The big mistake is to suppose that one can turn to philosophy to find ‘rules for living’ that would dictate generic principles applicable in all circumstances, rather than acknowledging that the only answer is, often, what may be called a radical choice, ungrounded in any principle or rule. 

So, what can we take away from all of this?

The book is an essay and not a theoretical or argumentative work, which means that it is a contribution to a genre in ill repute among academics, and runs the risk of being dismissed by my philosopher-peers as conveying little more than what is called on Twitter a ‘mood’. I can live with that. Moods can be diagnostically very useful, and we certainly know more about what people were really thinking, say, in the 16th century, when we read Montaigne than when we read Francisco Suárez. In any case if the book were making a theoretical argument, it would almost certainly be wrong. In being honest about its true character as an essay, I may hope that at least some readers will be able to share the mood of it, and perhaps thereby to accompany me in the project of becoming a bit wiser. 

Justin E. H. Smith is professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris 7–Denis Diderot. His books include The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (Princeton). An editor at large of Cabinet Magazine, he also writes frequently for the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, and other publications.

Walter Mattli on Darkness by Design: The Hidden Power in Global Capital Markets

MattliCapital markets have undergone a dramatic transformation in the past two decades. Algorithmic high-speed supercomputing has replaced traditional floor trading and human market makers, while centralized exchanges that once ensured fairness and transparency have fragmented into a dizzying array of competing exchanges and trading platforms. Darkness by Design exposes the unseen perils of market fragmentation and “dark” markets, some of which are deliberately designed to enable the transfer of wealth from the weak to the powerful. Essential reading for anyone with money in the stock market, Darkness by Design challenges the conventional view of markets and reveals the troubling implications of unchecked market power for the health of the global economy and society as a whole.

How did you come to write this book?

Right after the 2007-2008 financial crisis I became interested in questions regarding the regulation of big banks in order to prevent abuse, market distortions, and further scandals and crises. I wanted to look at the ways in which the very same contributors to the financial crisis benefited from it, but I discovered that a number of financial experts were already examining the topic and producing very insightful research. I thus decided to shift my attention to an important related area that many knew little about: the structure and governance of capital markets. After talking to several dozen market actors and doing some preliminary research, what struck me as particularly interesting was the puzzling transformation of equity market structure: the move from centralized to fragmented markets in the early 2000s. I wasn’t convinced by the conventional view of this transformation; I therefore began to investigate the question of market structure and governance more carefully. In the process, I made interesting discoveries that I felt should be explored more fully and presented to a broad audience.

Can you explain the title? What exactly is being hidden?

A retired regulator with a distinguished 15-year record at the helm of two major financial regulatory organizations confessed to me that he no longer understands how these complex capital markets really work. The average investor is even more in the dark about these markets. When an investor sends an order to buy or sell a stock by the click of a mouse, the order may take a lightning journey through a maze of dark pools and exchanges before being filled. How does the investor know that on the journey to execution the order was treated fairly and was filled at the best available price?

The title, Darkness By Design, refers to almost invisible exploitative trading schemes or arrangements in today’s capital markets that are deliberately designed and governed to enable the transfer of wealth from the weak to the powerful.  

To understand the mechanism of such exploitation, it is important to go beyond conventional accounts of how markets work and acknowledge the extent to which markets are political organizations. What the many conventional accounts of the function of markets overlook is the extent to which markets are deeply political organizations or governance systems where what is being hidden is the extent to which power politics shapes markets. Contending groups intensely battle to shape market rules and structure according to their own narrow preferences. Power is central to explaining markets both in the sense of general power politics arguments about who wins or loses, and in the sense that markets themselves are political institutions governed by power relations.

What are the origins of the market fragmentation that we’re seeing today? 

It’s worth recalling that for over two centuries, securities markets in all major countries tended toward greater concentration. Concentration of trading in one large organized public market or trading “pool” seemed natural and inevitable, because the greater the number of users of an exchange the more attractive that exchange is to new or potential users, since new buyers and sellers are more likely to find a counter-party in a large market than in a small one. That is to say, a central market naturally has the highest concentration of orders: it has the greatest trading depth (volume of bids and offers) as well as breadth (range of tradeable securities). In other words, it has the highest liquidity, and liquidity begets liquidity: the bigger the flow of trades, the stronger the pull.

My book questions the conventional view of the move from centralization to fragmentation that says that centralized markets were monopolistic and inefficient and that this led to the fragmentation of the market. In this narrative, investors are the principal beneficiaries owing to narrower trading spreads and lower commissions, but this deeply entrenched conventional view is flawed. A key finding of my book is that power politics caused the market fragmentation—it was a plot by a coterie of powerful insiders who had grown weary of the traditional way of organizing trading, viewed the old model increasingly as contrary to their economic interests, and quietly pushed for a different market structure more aligned with those interests.

How is market fragmentation hurting us now?

In today’s fragmented markets characterized by many “shallow” pools of liquidity—a proliferation of public exchanges, broker-dealer dark pools, and other private off-exchange trading places—costly new technology is often used by powerful market operators in quiet and nearly invisible ways to maximize their profits at the expense of ordinary investors. Specifically, information asymmetries and secrecy—often deliberate governance-design strategies—have enabled a small but powerful group of unscrupulous market operators to milk conflicts of interest, often in undisclosed or hidden ways, at the expense of the unsuspecting investing public.

Latent in the minds of many victims of these strategies is a belief that “modern” markets are technologically determined and that technological progress must be good. But new technology is neither bad nor good; its social value is solely determined by the incentives or motives of the users of this technology. The rise of fragmentation, or market transformation more generally, matters because it shapes the incentives of market actors to invest in either good or bad governance.

Good governance is about managing conflicts of interest for the long-term benefit of all in society whereas bad governance milks the conflicts of interest for the benefit of the few on the backs of the many. Over the past decade and a half, fragmentation has given rise to bad governance. Market makers have fewer obligations, market surveillance is neglected or impossible, and enforcement is rendered ineffective.

It is important to note that market fragmentation is by no means limited to the US equity market. Elsewhere, too, market centralization has been replaced by varying levels of fragmentation.

Is this story all doom and gloom? Are there any positives? What would have to happen to address the issues related to market fragmentation?

Darkness by design is not inevitable—the mantle of darkness can be lifted through a combination of steps based on several fundamental principles, including market transparency based on stringent disclosure rules and robust market intelligence, a level playing field for market participants, proper accountability for market disruption and bad governance, and, crucially, market consolidation or centralization. The reason is that dominant exchanges in such market systems have particularly strong reputational concerns and the requisite financial resources to invest in good governance. Dominance means high public visibility, which brings with it great reputational vulnerabilities.

In highly fragmented market systems, the many market organizations have an incentive to cut corners. Why focus on delivering high quality public goods, such as price discovery, if competitors can simply free ride, and, in addition, good money can be made by milking conflicts of interest? Once such behavior becomes permissive and the unspoken norm, no significant reputational costs result from engaging in, abetting, or condoning bad market behavior.

Regulatory intervention in capital markets by governments plays a role in lifting the mantle of darkness. However, it is rarely the only answer and not necessarily the most effective one. It is bound to face considerable practical and especially political challenges, not least from powerful defenders of the status quo who will fight change tooth and nail. There is another answer: market solutions to market failures, sometimes nudged or facilitated by regulators. Specifically, greater consolidation and market centralization are possible—not through regulatory intervention but perhaps through market processes.

Consolidation of markets at the national or transnational level, with one or more dominant exchanges, is likely to generate a fairer, simpler, more transparent, and more efficient marketplace than the one created by a fragmented system and characterized by shallow liquidity scattered across a wide range of exchanges, dark pools, and internalizers. 

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

A key contribution of this book is the empirical analysis into historical patterns of market structure and governance. The book shows the market transformation that took place over time. Central to the analysis is the role of power politics in shaping market structure and governance: changes in the distribution of power in capital markets alter market actors’ relative influence in pushing for or opposing change. Specifically, over the last decade and a half, transformations have taken place which have resulted in fragmentation and badly governed markets, thereby adversely affecting aspects of quality and fairness in these markets. I hope the book will encourage readers to become more cautious and will equip them to ask tough questions of their brokers in order to better protect their interests when investing in capital markets.

Walter Mattli is professor of international political economy and a fellow of St. John’s College, University of Oxford. His books include The New Global Rulers: The Privatization of Regulation in the World Economy and The Politics of Global Regulation. He lives in Oxford, England.

Caitlyn Collins on Making Motherhood Work

Collins Making Motherhood Work coverThe work-family conflict that mothers experience today is a national crisis. Women struggle to balance breadwinning with the bulk of parenting, and stress is constant. Social policies don’t help. Of all Western industrialized countries, the United States ranks dead last for supportive work-family policies: No federal paid parental leave. The highest gender wage gap. No minimum standard for vacation and sick days. The highest maternal and child poverty rates. Can American women look to European policies for solutions? Making Motherhood Work draws on interviews that sociologist Caitlyn Collins conducted over five years with 135 middle-class working mothers in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States. She explores how women navigate work and family given the different policy supports available in each country.

Tons of academics and journalists have written about motherhood and work-family conflict. What’s different about your book?

 Making Motherhood Work pushes the conversation about work-family conflict beyond national borders. There’s clear consensus: the United States’ free market approach to social provisioning is failing families. Working mothers’ struggles are only intensifying. We need structural change. Many of these writers point to European-style policies as promising models.

This book is the first to compare work-family policies cross-nationally from the perspective of mothers themselves. I begin—rather than end—with the question of policy. What’s life like under these different policy models? Making Motherhood Work complements accounts of U.S. women’s experiences with stories from European women. I engage them in a virtual transatlantic conversation to consider a wide range of possibilities to better support mothers and families. Women’s perspectives should be central to any endeavors in the U.S. to craft, advocate for (or against), and enact work-family policy as a force for social change.

How did you approach the research for the book?

I conducted interviews with 135 middle-class working moms in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States over the course of five years. I spent time with women in their homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces, and with their children, partners, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues. We can think of these women as a conservative test of how employed moms think and feel about work-family conflict. As sociologist Pamela Stone writes, if middle- and upper-class working mothers struggle to manage work and family, these difficulties are akin to “the miners’ canary—a frontline indication that something is seriously amiss.” Things are much, much harder for mothers who are low-income, have little formal education, unrewarding jobs, unreliable or no transportation, and for people without legal residency or citizenship. Studies with these women are vital. I hope this book inspires more research on disadvantaged mothers across national contexts.

Where do mothers have it “best”? Can we import their policies to the U.S.?

The most satisfied women live in Sweden. I left Stockholm feeling optimistic about prospects for working moms. Cultural attitudes and work-family policies can play in reducing gender inequality. I show that Swedish social policies are part of a larger cultural discourse about parenting, work, and gender equality. Their social democratic policies operate in the context of societal beliefs that child-rearing is a collective responsibility, that both men and women can and should work for pay and care for their families, and that workplaces recognize and support employees’ nonwork responsibilities and interests. These cultural beliefs are incompatible with the neoliberal ideology ascendant in the US. In other words, work-family policies are symptomatic of larger ethical and cultural understandings of what is and isn’t appropriate for mothers. As such, they play a role in reproducing the existing social order.

The larger point is this: context matters. We can’t roll out a Swedish or German or Italian policy in the U.S. and expect it to have similar consequences. Instead, with any policy, we need to examine its assumptions, content, and practical implications in relation to the wider political, economic, and social context. We need to evaluate policy reforms in light of prevailing cultural ideals to understand their effects on mothers. They’re likely to differ in important ways for different groups of women.

What about dads? They struggle to manage work and family life, too.

Absolutely they do. I focus on mothers because in all industrialized countries, they’ve historically been the targets of work-family policy. Women are still responsible for most housework and childcare. They report greater work-family conflict than men. And they use work-family policies more often than men. The conversation needs to be about dads as much as about moms.

These policies are necessary but insufficient if they’re offered to and used mostly by women and not men. In other words, work-family policies should be enacted in a cultural environment supportive of gender equality. Policies can be pro-mother without being pro-equality. To be clear, ridding a society of sexism isn’t a necessary precondition for implementing work-family justice oriented policies. But we need a renewed conversation about gender equality policy and policy instruments aimed at changing men’s behavior alongside work-family policy debates to improve the social and economic climate for all working parents.

What’s the one takeaway you want readers to remember?

Work-family conflict is not an unfortunate but inexorable part of life as a working mom today. This book shows that mothers’ stress is not of their own making, and it can’t be of their own fixing. Work-family conflict is a phenomenon that societies have created. This means that societies can change it, too. U.S. Americans can enact policies to remedy the unequal social conditions that fuel mothers’ stress and undue burden for caregiving. What we’re missing is the political and social will to do so.

You argue we should abandon the goal of “work-family balance.” Instead you advocate a social movement for work-family justice. What does that mean?

Framing work-family conflict as a problem of imbalance is too individualistic. The U.S. is a nation of mothers engulfed in stress. Suggesting mothers seek “balance” doesn’t take into account how institutions contribute to this stress. We need a social movement centered on work-family justice. I define this in the book as a system in which each member of society has the opportunity and power to fully participate in both paid work and family care. The rhetoric of justice highlights the reality that this conflict isn’t the outcome of individual women’s shortcomings or mismanaged commitments. Instead, it’s the result of cultural attitudes and policies embedded in workplaces and systems of welfare provisioning. In Erik Olin Wright’s words, as with all social problems, work-family conflict doesn’t reflect some fixed law of nature. It reflects the current social organization of power. Mothers don’t need balance. They need justice.

What’s the one social policy you would implement if you could wave a magic wand to help U.S. moms?

High-quality, affordable childcare. My next project is an ethnographic study of the U.S. childcare system, an extractive market we don’t tend to talk about in these terms. Without a robust public option, consequences are dire for kids, parents, businesses, and our economy. Like work-family conflict, the crisis of care is not inevitable. But it’s central to reproductive justice. We can do more, and better, for U.S. families.

Caitlyn Collins is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. Find her on Twitter at @caitymcollins and read more here: caitlyncollins.com.

Margaret C. Jacob on The Secular Enlightenment

JacobThe Secular Enlightenment is a panoramic account of the radical ways that life began to change for ordinary people in the age of Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau. In this landmark book, familiar Enlightenment figures share places with voices that have remained largely unheard until now, from freethinkers and freemasons to French materialists, anticlerical Catholics, pantheists, pornographers, readers, and travelers.A majestic work of intellectual and cultural history, this book demonstrates how secular values and pursuits took hold of eighteenth-century Europe, spilled into the American colonies, and left their lasting imprint on the Western world for generations to come.

What accounts for the fact that ordinary people began to see the world on its own terms, rather than through the prism of religion, during the 18th century? 

So many factors were present but I would highlight a few: the realization that there existed whole continents where the Christian God was unknown; the growing realization that Europeans had persecuted and enslaved non-Europeans often in the service of religion. The behavior of the clergy at home was one of the main themes in the new pornography; and of course religious divisions between Catholics and Protestants played into skepticism about all the claims of religion. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the ensuing persecution of French Protestants put the issue of religion, and how its representatives treated others, on the European wide agenda. This was compounded by the thousands of Protestant refugees to be found by 1700 in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Geneva, etc. They were articulate and took to the printing presses to alert the world of the injustices perpetrated by the French king and clergy.

What does your book bring to the conversation of secularization during the Enlightenment that hasn’t appeared before?

The book draws upon new sources, many of them found only in manuscript form. Such sources often reveal private thoughts and struggles about the veracity of religion or expressions of doubt and clerical hostility. It also crosses national boundaries, and focuses on the main urban centers in Germany, Italy and of course France, the Dutch Republic and Britain.

How common was it for ordinary people to read the works of Enlightenment thinkers during the 18thcentury?

It depends upon what we mean by ordinary. Anyone fully literate had access to the ideas found in the new journals or the writings of the philosophes. Note also that in France, for example, local clergy were advised in detail what heretical books contained so as better to refute them. From the pulpits of London (and the Boyle Lectures) to the French provinces any listener could hear about the details of the latest heresy.

Why have the voices of people you shed light on in the book been largely silent up to now?

So much attention has been given to the major thinkers from Locke and Newton to Adam Smith and Rousseau that lesser folk, often their followers, do not receive attention. Also digging in archives means a lot of travel to places often off the beaten track. How many books access archives in Leiden or Strasbourg or Birmingham? However, I do not neglect the major thinkers.

How did the religious establishment of the 18th century react to this shift?

Not as many people were burned at the stake or tortured as in previous centuries but there are big exceptions: the wife of a Dutch pastor and school teacher, a heretic, who went mad while locked away in prison; the book seller from Strasbourg who went to Paris in search of bad or forbidden books and spent over two years in the Bastille; the Italian heretic forced to flee to London where, impoverished, he continued to publish.

Do we see any attempts at justification on the part of groups or individuals for their decreasing attention to religious matters?

The literature of heresy consistently mocked the pretensions of the clergy and courts; their perceived hypocrisy was one good reason to avoid religion altogether. Others, like the busy industrialists in northern England, could plea the pressure of work or family obligations, so too could travelers and itinerants.

Was there anything that surprised you when you were researching for this book?

Yes, how many people had been left out of Enlightenment history; how incredibly thorough the French police were at spying and reporting on heretical behavior—or what they thought was heretical. Similarly, how coteries could remain relatively underground and then circulate some of the most virulent heresies of the age, for example, the group that brought out the Treatise on the Three Impostors. It argued that Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed had been the three. All involved managed to die in their beds.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

Antidotes to the claims made by biased contemporary clergy; the role of deism and freethinking for American philosophes like Jefferson and Franklin; and finally, how widespread enlightened ideas were by 1750.

Margaret C. Jacob is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her many books include The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons, and Republicans and The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750–1850. She lives in Los Angeles.

Amin Saikal on Iran Rising

Saikal Iran Rising coverWhen Iranians overthrew their monarchy, rejecting a pro-Western shah in favor of an Islamic regime, many observers predicted that revolutionary turmoil would paralyze the country for decades to come. Yet forty years after the 1978–79 revolution, Iran has emerged as a critical player in the Middle East and the wider world, as demonstrated in part by the 2015 international nuclear agreement. In Iran Rising, renowned Iran specialist Amin Saikal describes how the country has managed to survive despite ongoing domestic struggles, Western sanctions, and countless other serious challenges.

What did international observers predict would happen in Iran after the 1978-79 revolution? Why did things turn out differently?

The Iranian revolution marked a momentous development in world politics, challenging the regional order and America’s dominant position in the Middle East. A new Islamic Republic of Iran, under the theo-political leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, replaced the Shah’s pro-Western monarchy. It condemned the US for supporting the Shah’s autocratic rule and disparaged America’s regional allies, including Israel. It locked horns with Washington—something that has continued to date, though in different intensity from time to time.

Khomeini established a unique Shia-based system of Islamic governance. In a bloody power struggle following the overthrow of the Shah, Khomeini swiftly and forcefully eliminated or marginalised groups and individuals who had actively participated in the revolution, but did not agree with his brand of Islamism. The resultant post-revolutionary turmoil, and the Islamic regime’s unorthodox theocratic behaviour on both domestic and foreign policy fronts, led some analysts to conclude that the regime was an aberration and could not possibly endure.

However, the regime has now lasted for forty years, surviving numerous domestic and foreign policy challenges. Three key variables account for this. First, the internal elasticity and external flexibility of the regime’s system of governance enable it to both claim religious legitimacy and act pragmatically to survive. Over time, it has become less ideological and more pragmatic. Second, changing conditions within Iran and internationally have enabled the regime and its supporters to take advantage of American policy failures in the region—including, most importantly, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and on the Israeli-Palestinian front—to expand its regional influence. Third, it has built up hard and soft power capability in support of an asymmetrical defensive strategy.

How has Iran’s Islamic regime weathered the international sanctions against it?

The Islamic regime has been under American sanctions since the “hostage crisis.” On 4 November 1979, a group of militant student supporters of Khomeini overran the US embassy in Tehran and took 52 of the embassy’s diplomatic and non-diplomatic personnel hostage. The episode lasted until President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on 20 January 1981. The Islamic regime used the crisis to consolidate power, humiliate the United States, and pierce Pax Americana in the Middle East. Washington severed all ties and imposed sanctions on Iran.

The regime coped with this— along a bloody, and costly war with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein—by extracting more from the Iranian people and by pragmatically strengthening ties with the Soviet Union (and subsequently its successor, Russia) and China, despite the regime’s serious aversion to godless communism. It also entered closer cooperation with India. It engaged in processes of self-sufficiency and took steps to circumvent the sanctions.

When the UN later imposed sanctions, and the US and its European allies ratcheted up their sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, the regime pursued the same approach. It is now forced to act in a similar fashion once again, to counter President Donald Trump’s efforts to tame the regime in line with American interests.

Trump’s sanctions imposed following his withdrawal in May 2018 from the July 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are indeed very severe. Targeting the core elements of the Iranian economy, they are designed to strangle the regime economically and force it to change behaviour that Trump has branded as destructive and destabilising in the region—and therefore contrary to America’s interests. Trump’s actions will seriously hurt Iran’s already fragile economy, causing more hardship for ordinary Iranians. But they are unlikely to affect the regime to the point of submission, given its theocratic nature and the Iranian people’s tradition of fierce nationalism in the face of an outside threat or assault. After all, it was not the US-led international sanctions—imposed on Iraq following the February 1991 US-led liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation—that ended Saddam Hussein’s rule, but rather the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

How would domestic policy changes lead to foreign policy changes?

A majority of the Iranian people are crying out for improved living standards. Economic mismanagement, rampant corruption, international sanctions, and the residual effects of war with Iraq have led to high unemployment, inflation, and declining living conditions. As public pressure has built, the clerical leadership has responded by allowing occasional economic and social reforms. At the same time, it has been able to blame the US and its allies for Iran’s economic woes and keep most Iranians on their toes in a conflated Shia and nationalistic posture.

President Trump’s blatant support for public protests—primarily over the economic situation, and also the clerical domination of power—has conveniently enabled the regime to attribute Iran’s problems to America’s hegemonic and imperialist designs on the Iranian people. As the regime has defied the US, it has sought good relations with countries that have not shared Trump’s hostile attitude. These include, prominently, the other signatories to the JCPOA (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China), which have remained committed to the nuclear agreement, with a promise to override America’s ban on third party’s business dealings with Iran.

Can the history of the Islamic Republic help us understand Islamic governments in other countries?

Not necessarily. Iran’s system is heavily informed by Khomeini’s Shia version of Islam and is linked to Iran’s peculiar traditions. Neither the three other Shia-majority countries (Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain) nor any of the Sunni-majority states, whose citizens form the bulk of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims, have emulated Iran’s system of governance. For a combination of sectarian and geopolitical reasons, only Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime and some Shia sub-national groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen—not to mention certain Iraqi Shia militias—have sought close relationships with Tehran.

What about US-Iran relations?

The United States has tried everything short of direct military confrontation to contain the Iranian Islamic regime since its advent—and so far has failed. President Trump has promised that his latest round of sanctions will debase the regime economically and politically. But the likelihood of this happening seems remote. Realising this, President Obama pursued a policy of engagement rather than confrontation toward the regime. This led to the JCPOA, a landmark diplomatic achievement and a shot in the arm of the reformist and pragmatic factions in Iranian politics, led by President Hassan Rouhani, to strengthen their position in the power structure.

Trump’s actions have once again energised the hardline clerics and their supporters, associated with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to maintain their centrality in governing Iran and beef up their stance against any form of rapprochement with the United States or reformation of the Iranian system. The main question is: If his present measures fail and his own presidency survives, given the magnitude of his domestic problems, will Trump move toward military confrontation? War would be disastrous for all sides, as Iran has invested heavily in an asymmetrical fighting strategy to make an attack on it as costly as possible for its perpetrator.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Public Policy Fellow, and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of the Shah (Princeton) and Modern Afghanistan. He lives in Canberra.

Robyn Creswell on City of Beginnings

City of Beginnings is an exploration of modernism in Arabic poetry, a movement that emerged in Beirut during the 1950s and became the most influential and controversial Arabic literary development of the twentieth century. Robyn Creswell introduces English-language readers to a poetic movement that will be uncannily familiar—and unsettlingly strange. He also provides an intellectual history of Lebanon during the early Cold War, when Beirut became both a battleground for rival ideologies and the most vital artistic site in the Middle East.

In what sense is Beirut a ‘city of beginnings’?

The three decades after World War II were Lebanon’s version of France’s trente glorieuses. The country enjoyed an astonishing period of economic growth, and Beirut was the chief beneficiary: it became the most vibrant and intellectually alive city in the region. This was also a time when regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were becoming less tolerant of dissent, and so intellectuals from all over the region—including Palestinian thinkers fleeing the Nakba of 1948—emigrated to Beirut. The state was relatively weak, meaning there was minimal censorship, and every intellectual and political tendency had its own base of operations (oftentimes a café). There were nationalists, Marxists, Baathists, pan-Arabists, existentialists, and modernists—the group I write about in the book. My title is taken from the Syrian poet Adonis, who was one of these immigrants to Beirut. He fled Damascus in 1956 and began a new life in Lebanon.

Who were the central figures of this modernist group?

I focus on three figures: Yusuf al-Khal, Adonis, and Unsi al-Hajj. Al-Khal was the editor-in-chief of Shi‘r [Poetry] magazine, the house organ of the Beiruti modernists, which published its first issue in 1957 and closed in 1970, after 44 issues. Al-Khal was also a poet, a critic, and a translator of English-language poetry, but I emphasize his work as an editor, which I think was crucial to the movement. It was al-Khal who defined the group’s mission and fixed its place in Beirut’s intellectual landscape. Adonis is probably the most significant figure of the group—the greatest poet and most prolific critic, as well as a discerning translator of French poetry (particularly Saint-John Perse and Yves Bonnefoy). My book looks closely at his signature collection of poetry, The Songs of Mihyar the Damascene (1961), as well as his work as an editor of the classical tradition, and his lifelong engagement with the genre of elegy—the Arabic marthiya as well as the French tombeau. The book’s epilogue juxtaposes his reaction to the 1979 revolution in Iran with the 2011 Arab Spring. Finally, I devote a chapter to Unsi al-Hajj’s collection of prose poems, Lan [Will Not] (1960), the most difficult—and to my mind the most exciting—of all the modernists’ books: a delirious evocation of adolescent sexuality and a work of radical religious skepticism. The book is one of those literary landmarks that we have hardly begun to read and absorb.

What did modernism mean to poets and intellectuals in Beirut at that time?

In a sense, it meant the same thing to them as it did to artists and critics all over the world. The post-war moment is one in which modernism goes global—I’d even argue that post-war modernism is the first truly global style of art. The various art movements of the early twentieth century—Futurism, Vorticism, Simultaneism, Suprematism, etc.—were local styles with significant but limited international circulations. You could argue that postwar modernism is essentially an American phenomenon, which, by virtue of the United States’ suddenly expanded reach, goes everywhere including Lebanon (a staunch US ally at the time). But I think that modernism after the war has two elements that distinguish it from earlier movements: first, a commitment to artistic autonomy, which typically meant freedom from political interference, especially by the state. This is a moment when writers all over the Arab world took for granted the virtue of combining literature and politics—Sartre’s notion of the engagé intellectual was a commonplace—and so the modernists’ insistence on trying to separate poetry from politics cut strongly against the zeitgeist. The second is a commitment to internationalism, not as an accident of circulation but as a fundamental constituent of artistic work—which, perhaps as a consequence, tended to favor abstract aesthetics (this is as true of the Beiruti modernists as it is of their contemporary, Clement Greenberg). This internationalist commitment also explains the group’s deep interest in translation. Shi‘r magazine published Arabic translations of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, Paul Valéry, Paul Claudel, Henri Michaux, Octavio Paz, Rainer Maria Rilke—and many other European and American modernists.

You suggest that the American CIA played a role in disseminating this new idea of modernism. How so?

In 1950, the CIA set up the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) as a front group for its work of wooing European intellectuals away from Communism. Basically, the CCF was the cultural arm of the Marshal Plan, and it employed a familiar rhetoric of artistic freedom and international solidarity. Before it was exposed in 1967, the CCF set up a network of high-brow magazines—Encounter, Preuves, Der Monat, and others—and it sponsored dozens of conferences around the world, on topics like “The Future of Freedom,” “State Aid to the Arts,” and “Constitutionalism in Asia.” The story of the CCF in Europe is now well known, thanks to the efforts of historians like Frances Stonor Saunders, but its activities outside Europe are much less well understood (even though the so-called Third World was the focus of the Congress’s work after 1955). In 1961, the CCF held a conference in Rome, “The Arab Writer and the Modern World,” and all the Beiruti modernists participated, along with Ignazio Silone and Stephen Spender. My book tells the story of that conference in some detail—using the CCF’s extensive archives, housed at the University of Chicago—in an effort to understand what the American spies and Arab poets wanted from each other, what they had in common, and what ultimately divided them. It turns out to be an interesting story, with all kinds of unexpected ironies, and one that speaks to the history of Cold War liberalism in the Arab world more generally.

What was the effect of this movement on Arabic poetry?

I think the Shi‘r group contributed to a radical transformation of Arabic poetry. Some of this change was effected by their translation of foreign models of poetry into Arabic. Probably their most influential import was the prose poem (in Arabic qasidat al-nathr), which Adonis and Unsi al-Hajj began to write in the early 1960s, at the same time they were beginning to translate the poèmes en prose of Perse and Antonin Artaud. Many Arab critics at the time rejected the form as a French affectation, but lot of young poets took to it and by now it has become almost an orthodoxy. The modernists also undertook a thoroughgoing revision of the classical literary heritage (in Arabic al-turath). If you look at the 1400-year history of Arabic poetry with the modernist idea that poetry and politics are separate and even incompatible activities, then you arrive at a very different idea of that tradition from the standard one. This is what Adonis did over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, when he turned toward the Arabic turath to uncover buried or marginalized “modernist” counter-traditions within the classical past. Like many modernists, the Arab modernists were also archaeologists.

What can readers who aren’t familiar with Arabic literature learn from your book?

I wrote my book with just that audience in mind, though of course I intend it to be of interest to experts as well. I think the tradition of Arabic poetry is one the world’s great literary traditions, and hope my book can suggest some of the ways that it lives on, sometimes very powerfully, in the present. The story of the Shi‘r group is a fascinating one, which wends its way through so many of the highways and byways of twentieth-century thought, both political and artistic—nationalism, liberalism, philosophical personalism, aesthetic abstraction, Islamism, and others. I also hope that for those who are familiar with modernist movements in Europe, America, and elsewhere, my book will help them to read and examine those traditions with new eyes.

Robyn Creswell is assistant professor of comparative literature at Yale University and a former poetry editor at the Paris Review. His writings have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and Harper’s Magazine, among many other publications. He is the translator of Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Tongue of Adam and Sonallah Ibrahim’s “That Smell” and “Notes from Prison.”

J. C. Sharman on Empires of the Weak

SharmanWhat accounts for the rise of the state, the creation of the first global system, and the dominance of the West? The conventional answer asserts that superior technology, tactics, and institutions forged by Darwinian military competition gave Europeans a decisive advantage in war over other civilizations from 1500 onward. In contrast, Empires of the Weak argues that Europeans actually had no general military superiority in the early modern era. J. C. Sharman shows instead that European expansion from the late fifteenth to the late eighteenth centuries is better explained by deference to strong Asian and African polities, disease in the Americas, and maritime supremacy earned by default because local land-oriented polities were largely indifferent to war and trade at sea. Bringing a revisionist perspective to the idea that Europe ruled the world due to military dominance, this book demonstrates that the rise of the West was an exception in the prevailing world order.

Scholars have long argued that the dominance of the West can be attributed to superior technology, tactics, and institutions. Your book takes an opposing view. Can you describe it?

The standard view is to see Western expansion as synonymous with Western dominance, but my book separates the two. For around three centuries, Western expansion was more often the result of deference and subordination to non-Western rulers. Africans and Asians tolerated a weak European presence because Europeans were generally fixated on the control of the seas, which more powerful but terrestrially-oriented non-Western rulers generally didn’t care about. Even in the Americas, European victories were much more partial and incomplete than often portrayed, and were generally the result of disease and demography rather than superior technology, tactics and institutions.

What accounts for the narrative that the West came to power through general superiority?

The conventional ‘military revolution’ thesis argues that Western expansion reflected superior technology and institutions, basically guns and states. Supposedly, these advantages were first developed in the fiercely competitive environment of European warfare, and then applied to conquer the rest of the world. I argue this thesis is wrong, for several reasons, but particularly because of a reading of history which starts at ‘the end’ of the story, i.e. Western superiority, and then views the historical record from this supposed end-point. So European victories get a lot of coverage, because Europeans won in the end, whereas the Ottoman, Mughal and successive Chinese empires, which were much more powerful than their European counterparts for most of their existence, can be written off, because these empires lost in the end. But of course everyone loses in the end. The Europeans lost their empires, and someday the United States will lose too. Interestingly, even post-colonial scholars and those most critical of European imperialism tend to play into the narrative of powerful Westerners dominating everyone else. 

If the dominance of the West is an aberration to the prevailing global international system, what does a typical system look like?

Very roughly we can say that we’ve had some sort of global international system for five centuries. In most of Africa and Asia, Europeans weren’t really dominant until the nineteenth century (and this didn’t last long). In the three hundred years before, the typical arrangement was for Westerners to interact with Asian and African polities on a basis of inferiority. But because culture, ideas, and legitimacy are so important for shaping the international system, it’s hard to say what a typical form is.

For example, in the late nineteenth century the consensus was that any great power worthy of the name had to have an empire, and so we had an international system of empires, even though most empires lost money and didn’t confer security benefits. Then in a huge change that social scientists spend far too little time thinking about, empires went out of fashion. Now we have an international system of formally equal states, even though most states are pretty hopeless at performing the functions that are meant to justify their existence.

What led you to write this book?

The first reason was historical: that there was this hugely important undiscovered early modern international system out there, or at least a neglected and misunderstood international system, waiting to be explored. To me what makes international politics in the period 1500-1800 so exciting is that it upends our presumptions of superior, more powerful Westerners dominating everybody else. Sometimes this happened, but for two to three centuries Westerners were more likely to be dominated by non-Westerners, including in Europe.

The second reason was a basic rejection of the standard functionalist presumption that on average organizations work well, i.e. efficiently and effectively, because of learning and competition. On the contrary, I think getting the job done efficiently has very little to do with how organizations are structured and how they work.

For example, it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that most meetings in universities, corporations, and government bureaucracies are a waste of time (and hence money). But people can simultaneously know this, while continuing to go to and schedule endless meetings, without any plans to change this situation. Organizations, including militaries and states, do not learn to become more efficient, and are not penalized for their inefficiency. In environments of overwhelming complexity, they mainly stick to ritualized ways of doing things, like going to meetings.

What does the book have to say about international politics today and in the future?

Historians have done an excellent job of showing how the way we think about the past affects our views of the present and the future, and this point certainly applies to international politics. All sorts of things we currently tend to take for granted about international politics are in fact strange, while some important things we tend to think of as strange, and perhaps worrying, are actually the historical norm. The fact that all the world’s polities are today organized as one homogenous type of unit, the sovereign state, is very unusual by historical standards. Looking to the future, if China or other non-Western states were to become the most powerful in the twenty-first century (and social scientists are lousy at predictions so I have no idea if this will happen), rather than being unprecedented, this would in fact be a return to the historical norm in international politics.

J. C. Sharman is the Sir Patrick Sheehy Professor of International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of King’s College. His books include The Despot’s Guide to Wealth Management and International Order in Diversity. He lives in London.

Ken Steiglitz on The Discrete Charm of the Machine

SteiglitzA few short decades ago, we were informed by the smooth signals of analog television and radio; we communicated using our analog telephones; and we even computed with analog computers. Today our world is digital, built with zeros and ones. Why did this revolution occur? The Discrete Charm of the Machine explains, in an engaging and accessible manner, the varied physical and logical reasons behind this radical transformation. Ken Steiglitz examines why our information technology, the lifeblood of our civilization, became digital, and challenges us to think about where its future trajectory may lead.

What is the aim of the book?

The subtitle: To explain why the world became digital. Barely two generations ago our information machines—radio, TV, computers, telephones, phonographs, cameras—were analog. Information was represented by smoothly varying waves. Today all these devices are digital. Information is represented by bits, zeros and ones. We trace the reasons for this radical change, some based on fundamental physical principles, others on ideas from communication theory and computer science. At the end we arrive at the present age of the internet, dominated by digital communication, and finally greet the arrival of androids—the logical end of our current pursuit of artificial intelligence. 

What role did war play in this transformation?

Sadly, World War II was a major impetus to many of the developments leading to the digital world, mainly because of the need for better methods for decrypting intercepted secret messages and more powerful computation for building the atomic bomb. The following Cold War just increased the pressure. Business applications of computers and then, of course, the personal computer opened the floodgates for the machines that are today never far from our fingertips.

How did you come to study this subject?

I lived it. As an electrical engineering undergraduate I used both analog and digital computers. My first summer job was programming one of the few digital computers in Manhattan at the time, the IBM 704. In graduate school I wrote my dissertation on the relationship between analog and digital signal processing and my research for the next twenty years or so concentrated on digital signal processing: using computers to process sound and images in digital form.

What physical theory played—and continues to play—a key role in the revolution?

Quantum mechanics, without a doubt. The theory explains the essential nature of noise, which is the natural enemy of analog information; it makes possible the shrinkage and speedup of our electronics (Moore’s law); and it introduces the possibility of an entirely new kind of computer, the quantum computer, which can transcend the power of today’s conventional machines. Quantum mechanics shows that many aspects of the world are essentially discrete in nature, and the change from the classical physics of the nineteenth century to the quantum mechanics of the twentieth is mirrored in the development of our digital information machines.

What mathematical theory plays a key role in understanding the limitations of computers?

Complexity theory and the idea of an intractable problem, as developed by computer scientists. This theme is explored in Part III, first in terms of analog computers, then using Alan Turing’s abstraction of digital computation, which we now call the Turing machine. This leads to the formulation of the most important open question of computer science, does P equal NP? If P equals NP it would mean that any problem where solutions can just be checked fast can be solved fast. This seems like asking a lot and, in fact, most computer scientists believe that P does not equal NP. Problems as hard as any in NP are called NP-complete. The point is that NP-complete problems, like the famous traveling problem, seem to be intrinsically difficult, and cracking any one of them cracks them all.  Their essential difficulty manifests itself, mysteriously, in many different ways in the analog and digital worlds, suggesting, perhaps, that there is an underlying physical law at work. 

What important open question about physics (not mathematics) speaks to the relative power of digital and analog computers?

The extended Church-Turing thesis states that any reasonable computer can be simulated efficiently by a Turing machine. Informally, it means that no computer, even if analog, is more powerful (in an appropriately defined way) than the bare-boned, step-by-step, one-tape Turing machine. The question is open, but many computer scientists believe it to be true. This line of reasoning leads to an important conclusion: if the extended Church-Turing thesis is true, and if P is not equal to NP (which is widely believed), then the digital computer is all we need—Nature is not hiding any computational magic in the analog world.

What does all this have to do with artificial intelligence (AI)?

The brain uses information in both analog and digital form, and some have even suggested that it uses quantum computing. So, the argument goes, perhaps the brain has some special powers that cannot be captured by ordinary computers.

What does philosopher David Chalmers call the hard problem?

We finally reach—in the last chapter—the question of whether the androids we are building will ultimately be conscious. Chalmers calls this the hard problem, and some, including myself, think it unanswerable. An affirmative answer would have real and important consequences, despite the seemingly esoteric nature of the question. If machines can be conscious, and presumably also capable of suffering, then we have a moral responsibility to protect them, and—to put it in human terms—bring them up right. I propose that we must give the coming androids the benefit of the doubt; we owe them the same loving care that we as parents bestow on our biological offspring.

Where do we go from here?

A funny thing happens on the way from chapter 1 to 12. I begin with the modest plan of describing, in the simplest way I can, the ideas behind the analog-to-digital revolution.  We visit along the way some surprising tourist spots: the Antikythera mechanism, a 2000-year old analog computer built by the ancient Greeks; Jacquard’s embroidery machine with its breakthrough stored program; Ada Lovelace’s program for Babbage’s hypothetical computer, predating Alan Turing by a century; and B. F. Skinner’s pigeons trained in the manner of AI to be living smart bombs. We arrive at a collection of deep conjectures about the way the universe works and some challenging moral questions.

Ken Steiglitz is professor emeritus of computer science and senior scholar at Princeton University. His books include Combinatorial OptimizationA Digital Signal Processing Primer, and Snipers, Shills, and Sharks (Princeton). He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Francesca Trivellato on The Promise and Peril of Credit

The Promise and Peril of Credit takes an incisive look at pivotal episodes in the West’s centuries-long struggle to define the place of private finance in the social and political order. It does so through the lens of a persistent legend about Jews and money that reflected the anxieties surrounding the rise of impersonal credit markets.

What are the promises and the perils of credit?

This is a book about the distant past, but to understand its import, we may think about the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis. After the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the foreclosure crisis, a few radical voices called for an end to capitalism. But most people, in one way or another, demanded a fairer capitalism in which Main Street gains as much as Wall Street, and in which ever more intricate financial instruments provide for all and not just for savvy and well-connected insiders. The problem is that we cannot agree on what constitutes fair capitalism. Variations of this ideological and regulatory struggle have existed in Europe since the year 1000, when the Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages set in motion the first sustained period of demographic and economic expansion on the continent after the fall of the Roman empire. The more people participated in market exchanges, the more difficult it became to distinguish reliable from bad borrowers, trustworthy from shady bankers.

What is the legend that the books uncovers?

The legend tells the story of Jews fleeing the kingdom of France sometime between the seventh and the fourteenth centuries who invented marine insurance and bills of exchange in order to salvage whatever they could of their assets. The legend is false: Jews did not invent marine insurance and bills of exchange, though they were chased from France multiple times during the Middle Ages and every expulsion was accompanied by confiscation of goods. The first rendition of the legend appeared in print in 1647 in a collection of maritime laws.

What are bills of exchange?

Marine insurance at the time worked in the same way as modern insurance works, but bills of exchange are no longer in use. They were at once a credit instrument and a way of transmitting money abroad in a foreign currency. Picture MoneyGram meets a personal check. Materially, they were slips of papers even smaller than a modern check, scribbled in code (details can be gleaned on the book cover). Bills of exchange allowed merchants to transfer funds rather than risk the theft or the loss at sea of their silver coins. In the hands of the most experienced merchants, they were used to conduct complex speculative financial transactions that were entirely divorced from the purchase and sale of material goods. Bills of exchange symbolized all that was abstract, intangible, arcane, helpful but also potentially dangerous in the growing credit economy of early modern Europe. They were the derivatives of their time.

Why should we care about the legend that attributed to medieval Jews the invention of bills of exchange?

Because it was a preferred way in which until a hundred years ago writers discussed a question that is central to the history of the West: how can we expand the number and range of people who enter the marketplace but control their good behavior? The impersonality of the market is both appealing and threatening. Before and after Adam Smith, the invisible hand was only one of the idealized solutions to the problem of oligopolies. Many writers resorted to Jewish usury as a metaphor to denounce the asymmetries of powers that plagued the market. In this they were assisted by stockpiles of anti-Jewish prejudice images. In its original formulation the legend I discuss adapts this arsenal of anti-Jewish sentiments to denounce the dark forces that could led good Christian borrowers to loose small and large fortunes. Jews were a universal symbol of financial malpractice, to attribute the invention of Europe’s key credit instruments to Jews did not mean that Christians could not put those instruments to good use, but it meant that marine insurance and bills of exchange were tainted by usury as their original sin.

If the legend is as important as you claim, why does no one knows about it?

There are several reasons the legend is forgotten. Bills of exchange have fallen out of use and we have ceased to wonder where they came from. Moreover, economic historians now tend to search for the origins of those financial institutions that have survived into the present, notably the stock market, which developed in 1600 but affected many fewer people than the hundred thousands who handled marine insurance and bills of exchange. There is also a tendency to assume that Jews, both real and imaginary, mattered to European economic thought only in the Middle Ages, before the emergence of a secular “science of commerce” emerged. This is simply not true. Religious language continued to inform most economic writing in the early modern period. To accuse a Christian merchant of being “Jewish” was a way of equating their behavior to that of Jews, who supposedly wished to rob Christians of their wealth.

How did Jews react to the circulation of this legend?

I wish I knew what Jews told each other about a story that some of them surely heard in one version or another. Some Jewish writers did engage with the legend in writing, especially in the nineteenth century. To my knowledge, the first to do so was the father of British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, who had his children baptized, making his son’s political career possible. In some quarters, the legend was a source of Jewish pride and fed the genre known as Jewish-contributions-to-civilization by touting Jewish financial prowess. Other Jewish authors firmly rejected a legend that they saw as mobilizing insidious stereotypes.

Why don’t you ever mention Shylock in a book about Jews and credit?

Some historians have tried to pin down the sources of Shakespeare’s imagination by establishing whether one Jewish merchant or another living in the Venice ghetto in the 1590s may have served as a model for the great English writer. I regard such efforts as futile: literary imagination is not more or less compelling because it is based on identifiable facts. But if we want to judge one of the masterpieces of Renaissance theater by its empirical validity, then The Merchant of Venice would fail the test. The pound of flesh is only one of the dubious references in the play. Shylock would have lent money to Antonio by means of a bill of exchange. Only poor Christians had to deposit a pledge to borrow a small sum in the ghetto. A patrician like Antonio could borrow by using his reputation as collateral. After 1589, when international Jewish merchants hailing from Iberia found a safe haven in Venice, Antonio would have found Jewish merchants able and willing to issue him a bill of exchange. The figure of Shylock really tells us that the Jewish usurer, one of the most long-lasting figments of the Western imagination, was a protean symbol that encompassed stereotypes of both the parasitic Jewish poor and the rapacious Jewish capitalist.

Francesca Trivellato is professor in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. She is the author of The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period.