Monday, April 21, 2008

Christopher Hitchens, with whose writing I have a bit of a love-hate relationship, has offered up a review in Vanity Fair of Peter Ackroyd’s new ‘biography’ of Isaac Newton. I put ‘biography’ in quotes, because Ackroyd does not here aspire to pen anything new – either analytically or synthetically – about the life of Newton. Ackroyd has a little project he has created for himself called ‘Ackroyd’s Brief Lives’ in which he gives his readers nutshell biographies. Ackroyd is a good writer who fancies himself great. Ironically, if he did not fancy himself great, he actually would be. Unfortunately, his constant and all too transparent attempts at crafting a witty turn of phrase undo his efforts. Sometimes, Mr. Ackroyd, less is more.

I am not here going to review Mr. Ackroyd’s passably good book. At the Amazon price, the book is worth the expenditure. However, for the reader who has the will to expend more effort (and a little more money), I rather recommend the combination of two studies of Newton, which together make a complete picture of the man. First is Richard S. Westfall’s Never at Rest, a brilliant and scholarly account of Newton qua natural philosopher. This should be read, however, along with Betty-Jo Teeter Dobbs’s The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton's Thought. Dobbs introduced the world to Newton’s mystical side, an aspect which had been nearly sanitized from accounts of Newton from immediately after his death up until the second half of the twentieth century. Dobbs shows us Newton the biblical exegete, Newton the prophet, and Newton the alchemist. These aspects of Newton, according to Hitchens (if my ‘reading-between-the-lines’ spectacles have not deceived me), would have been better off ignored or lost entirely to the dust of history.

Hitchens's review is, in fact, not a review at all. It is yet another of his diatribes against any and all religious belief. By my count, Hitchens spends only 40% of his allotted word count actually discussing the book. A not-insignificant portion of the remainder of the piece comprises puerile autobiographical ramblings about his boyhood in Cambridge. But for the most part, the rest of the review is spent coloring his readers’ impressions of Newton, by way of that most-wonderful of fallacies: poisoning the well.

The book review, as a literary object, has as its purpose the analysis and estimation of the contents of the book it purports to be reviewing. It is not the job of the reviewer to spew forth opinions about (in this case) the subject of the book, Isaac Newton. Hitchens’s subject is Ackroyd’s book about Newton, not Newton himself. But Hitchens quite ably manages to color Ackroyd’s future reader’s impressions by calling Newton a bigot, a misogynist, and a number of other epithets. Such a manner of seeing Newton belies an attitude towards history which historians themselves have all but done away with, an attitude which Herbert Butterfield (another Cambridge alumnus with whom Hitchens is apparently shamefully unfamiliar) labeled “the whig interpretation of history.”

“Whigishness” in history is that tendency to assume that the only important parts of history worth discussing are those events which led to the situation in which we now live. In the history of science, this led (in the 19th and early 20th centuries) historians to ignore such things as alchemy, which had been thrown into the dustbin of history. Newton’s biographies, as I mentioned above, all glossed over or entirely ignored any reference to alchemy or any other “dead end” subjects such as religion. However, since the publication in 1966 of an article titled “Newton and the Pipes of Pan,” historians of science have become far more interested in the more mystical side of Newton (and Robert Boyle, Johannes Kepler, and many, many more such figures). They have come to understand that Newton cannot be understood apart from these aspects.

In Hitchens’s distorted and ahistorical view, Newton was brilliant in spite of his religious, alchemical or mystical tendencies. In reality, Newton likely would not have made his numerous discoveries without those tendencies. We might be able to separate Francis Crick’s boorishness from his science, but Newton’s mysticism cannot be separated from his natural philosophy. Newton's misogyny and anti-Catholic views are nothing unusual for the the time period in question. Newton supported the Glorious Revolution, a decidedly anti-Catholic turn of events. The fact that the Glorious Revolution succeeded suggests that many, many more people supoorted it as well. Newton does not seem so strange given the circumstances. Furthermore, given his abndonment by his mother, and his hatred for her, his views towards women are not so strange either. Someone with a better grasp of history than Hitchens would know these things.

posted by Kepler at 09:59 | 1 comments Track with co.mments
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
On November 29, at 12:47 P.M., I filed my doctoral dissertation. Blogging should resume after the holidays. Congratulations also go out to Kletos at Amor et Labor who defended his dissertation in early November.

65,304 words (excluding footnotes). 299 written pages, + 37 pages of bibliography.
posted by Kepler at 10:32 | 2 comments Track with co.mments
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Via the Little Professor, I learned that the winners in the annual Bulwer-Lytton contest have been announced.

I strongly recommend that you finish your coffee before perusing the winners, as you are likely to spew it all over your monitor!

Personally, the winner in the Children's Literature category is my favorite:

Danny, the little Grizzly cub, frolicked in the tall grass on this sunny Spring morning, his mother keeping a watchful eye as she chewed on a piece of a hiker they had encountered the day before.

Dave McKenzie
Federal Way, WA

posted by Kepler at 10:19 | 1 comments Track with co.mments
Thursday, July 05, 2007
Yep, we're back to the old, "If you don't toe the party line, we're gonna axe you!" motif so common in American academia.

Only this time, it's from Christians. Yes, that's right...Christians attempting to limit free speech in an academic setting... Who woulda thunk it?

Here is the post where I discovered the story; here is the text of the article at Conservativenet. (Original article is at the Chronicle of Higher Education, but that requires a subscription).

I generally tend to support the idea that private organizations have the right and freedom to choose who they associate with (e.g., a plumbing company which is privately owned by a Christian is not obligated to hire a gay plumber [insert crass joke here]), but at the same time, the university in question accepted grant funds from the Anthem Foundation. That seems to be a classic case of the university speaking out of both sides of its mouth.
posted by Kepler at 10:04 | 1 comments Track with co.mments
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
...or is it Stupidly Charitable?

Great post over at Weedon's Blog on how this interwebby thing allows us to stick our noses where noses often don't rightly belong. The only thing worse than self-righteousness is long-distance, ill-informed self-righteousness. Often times, such self-righteousness is about piddly things which get overblown into all-out brawls.

I think there should be a permanent moratorium on anyone criticizing anyone else for praying with someone within 30 days after a disaster. Charity in the dazed state that people are in after such calamities often stretches limits. People send more to the Salvation Army than they can afford. People want to "give double" at blood drives.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's great that we can have a world-wide chat on theological issues in the comments section of someone's blog. And I expect and accept that there will be some disagreements in such chats. But when people who do not know the parties in question make assumptions and accusations about said parties, that crosses the line. Happens a lot at LQ.
posted by Kepler at 13:43 | 2 comments Track with co.mments
Thursday, May 17, 2007
I have been vacillating between two candidates of late: Ron Paul and Fred Thompson. (Bill Richardson is also still on my radar screen, but he's out at the edge.) One could argue that neither is truly a Presidential candidate, since Ron Paul doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell, and FDT has not officially declared. Of course, even if Paul did have a chance at one point, he officially threw it out the window during Tuesday night's debate, by blaming 9/11 on US policy.


One can make (and Paul does make) a legitimate conservative anti-war position. Chuck Hagel makes the same case. One cannot --in any sane way-- blame 9/11 on America.

So FDT is my man, for now. Or, perhaps not. Tolle lege!!

Let me put on my "professional historian's hat" for a moment...

The idea that Military History has "disappeared" from the history curriculum in American academia is simply ludicrous.

FDT uses the work of Victor David Hansen as his support for this assertion. States Hansen:
The hundred years of talking about slavery was not as important as two [sic] days at Gettysburg. The success or failure of Normandy affected Hitler more in an hour than had years of pleading with him in the 1930s.
First of all, these two sentences are not saying the same thing. To speak of relative importance and affect is to speak of two completely different things. So Hansen's logic is dubious at best. (Unless, of course, he was trying to make two different points. I have not seen the context of the passage.)

Hansen's first sentence above is flat wrong. First of all, Dr. Hansen, Gettysburg lasted three days, not two. But I quibble. The three days of Gettysburg might not have happened were it not for the hundred years of talking about slavery. Had no one talked, had no one challenged slavery, who would have fought to defeat it? Furthermore, without the Constitution of the United States of America (written approximately four-score and seven years before Gettysburg) there could not have been a Battle of Gettysburg. Yessiree Bob, that hundred years of talking is/was every bit as important as those "two" days.

Hansen's second sentence may or may not be true (although I am inclined to believe that it is). Unfortunately, it is a statement made only with the benefit of hindsight. If we could know such things ahead of time, then we would know in advance who we could talk down and who we would have to fight. As such, his statement is useless.

Near the end of his commentary, FDT writes the following:
(1)If for no other reason than that we want to avoid war whenever we can, universities should at least offer the option of studying it. (2)We know that students would sign up for the classes, because books on the subject are always reliable sellers. (3)Television programmers have also responded to the sizable hunger for military history. [ed: the numerals in parentheses are mine]
Sentence (1) begs the question: have they stopped offering the option of studying it? The answer is no, they have not. What has happened in past years is that fewer and fewer schools are teaching Military History in a vacuum. What, after all, is the point of teaching about Gustavus Adolfus or Jan Sobieski if you don't teach what they were fighting for? Military History is now generally taught in the broader social context. Which is to say, the reasons for fighting are deemed just as important as the methods of fighting. In some cases, more important.

The people who need to learn strategy and tactics are the students at our military academies. Believe me, there are plenty of excellent historians at those institutions. There are also places for those interested in such things to meet, such as the Society for Military History, and H-War, the H-Net discussion group devoted to Military History.

Here is a sampling of some of my required reading during my Ph.D. coursework:

Niall Fergusson, The Pity of War: a revisionist account of WWI. The book was openly presented as an example of revisionism in the class. Standard texts were also recommended.

Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800.

Geoffrey Parker, The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567-1659: The Logistics of Spanish Victory and Defeat in the Low Countries' Wars.

Jan Glete, War and the State in Early Modern Europe: Spain, the Dutch Republic and Sweden as Fiscal-military States, 1500-1660.

Ann Hughes, The Causes of the English Civil War.

I'm sure there were more.

Military History is taught in the broader context of national and international histories: the English Civil War is taught in general British history classes. Everyone learns about the Battle of Lepanto: it effectively ended Turkish dominance of the Mediterranean world. But these days, we also learn that the shift in Spanish focus from northern Europe to the eastern Mediterranean allowed for the Dutch revolt and the rise of Protestant Europe.

I picked a major American university at random and looked up their course offerings to give just a quick test to FDT's assertion that Military History has disappeared. The school was Kansas University, and list of recent course offerings is here (.doc file warning!). I count at least a dozen courses which explicitly deal with issues of war. There are at least another dozen which would have to address issues of war in some kind of ancillary way.

As for sentence (2), it also begs a question: are college students one and the same as the consumers who are buying books on Military History? One hardly thinks so. As a former bookstore manager, I can say unequivocally that patrons who buy books on Military History are predominantly older (40+) men. And when I say predominantly, I mean in excess of 90%.

The same holds true for (3) television programming. College kids are watching American Idol, not the Hitler History Channel. The median age of the History Channel's audience is 51 years.

FDT also asserts that:
our schools have stopped offering courses that would help us meet their [the terrorists' or terrorist sponsoring nations'] challenge.
Again, this is incorrect. He's just looking for it in the wrong place. Learning how to stop terrorism isn't done in the History Department. That's done in the Public Policy and Public Health Departments. My wife (an Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at UNC) is on a terrorism task force. If we're looking for strategy and tactics, that's done in the criminal justice department, or at specialized schools for such purposes (like the aforementioned military academies).

Sorry Fred, but this column was a swing-and-a-miss. The article which inspired your piece takes a slightly more measured approach. But even Bell made the same mistake when he said,
Historians of the twentieth century resisted these tendencies [ed: the tendencies of paying attention to things other than war] better than others (not surprisingly, given the cataclysmic impact of the world wars). So did historians of Civil War era America. But, in accounts of most other periods, war lost its formerly commanding position. [ed: emphasis mine]
Again, this is begging the question: should war have ever had a commanding position in history?

I for one (as a historian of science and theology) don't think so.

posted by Kepler at 08:06 | 6 comments Track with co.mments
Wednesday, May 09, 2007
Once upon a time, I was a college brat. I consumed alcohol (yes, underage), stayed up late partying, did not do my homework, and managed to lose a full-ride scholarship with my bad grades. During spring break of my freshman year, I went home to SoCal and brought my girlfriend and roommate with me, so we could all hang out at the beach. Huntington Beach, to be specific; Surf City, USA. Lifeguard Tower 19.

Unbeknownst to my parents, I had gotten my ear pierced while away at college. (This was the mid-80s, so a pierced ear still 'meant' something back then...left ear 'meant' edgy and radical, while right ear 'meant' gay. Mine was in my left ear!) Well, I walked in the front door and my Mom saw it immediately.

She went all hysterical on my butt. Screamin', cryin', hissy-fit hysterical. How could I DO this to her??? Didn't my family mean anything??? Was nothing worth my respect??? What would be next??? A tattoo??? Well, an 18-year-old-brat likes nothing more than to get a rise like that out of his Mom; BULLSEYE!!! While she hardly spoke to me for the rest of the day, I spent the day gloating in secret satisfaction.

At some point, she called my Dad at work and told him. When he came home that afternoon, he greeted me with a hug, and then looked at my ear. His reaction?? He got this look on his face which was a combination of amusement, disappointment ... and pity. Yes, pity... like he felt sorry that his son grew up to be such a dolt that getting a rise out his mom would provide such facile amusement. He shook his head and said simply, "Good grief." And he walked away.

Emotionally, he had sucker punched me. He never said another word about it. He knew he had hit the mark. In fact, in order for his one comment to continue to have effect, it depended on him not saying another word. And of course, my Dad is a smart enough man to know that.

This is something that Fathers know. There is most certainly time for discipline. There is also time for letting a child do what children do. The Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son did not beat his son silly, as his culture would have allowed him to do. He lets his son go and make an ass out of himself.

When kids decide to make asses of their selves, it's best to simply let them. They WANT attention. This is a throwback to very early childhood, when a baby thinks that it is the center of the universe, and everyone exists to satisfy its needs. When kids become young adults, they slowly learn that they are only one of some six-billion souls in the world. The absolute WORST thing that an authority figure can do is to reinforce their leftover infantile mindset by giving them precisely what they crave.

Mothers (being mothers), rarely learn the lesson that less is more. Even when the child has matured and is well beyond that stage, mothers continue to react hysterically. My Mom still does. Fathers know this intuitively.

In the late 80s, a now-defunct rap group called 2 Live Crew put out an album with some rather filthy lyrics. The album did not sell well. At least, not until some boneheaded Christians got involved. The American Family Association managed to convince the Governor of Florida (Mel Martinez) that something should be done about the album. At the instigation of the Governor, the Sheriff of Broward County arrested both members of the group and record store owners for performing and selling (respectively) the record. Controversy arose, and sales for the album skyrocketed. The group had enjoyed extremely limited attention until people started making a fuss about them.

My reasons for writing this post are here. Suffice it to say, I have not watched the video (edit: apparently it has been removed from YouTube.) and I don't intend to. Like my Dad, I'm smart enough to know that attention is exactly what the makers of this video wanted. People who DO give them attention, people who DO react like "MOTHER" ... well, they're the boneheads I was talking about.

A few years after my earring incident, I 'wised up', got my act together, and finished out my last four semesters of college with a near 4.0 GPA. Some people take longer to mature than others. I also went on to get a Master's Degree at Concordia University, Irvine, and I am now finishing my Ph.D. at UCLA. I am a former Fulbright Fellow; I speak two languages and read three more.

My Dad doesn't say, "Good grief!" anymore. He said it once. That was enough.
posted by Kepler at 08:22 | 6 comments Track with co.mments