Beyond 5 Stars–Can Frustrate, But Righteously Broad, June 9, 2011
I am sympathetic to those who are critical of the author, as I myself was frustrated at many points and also I confess feeling very ignorant about many of the literary works that were mentioned. However, and despite a rotten index and the lack of a syntopicon or annex with literature and politics and economics at least, side by side, this is for me beyond 5 stars, a category where no more than 10% of my reviewed works can be found (at Phi Beta Iota, the Public Intelligence Blog).
It is true the book is not so much about grand strategy in the classical political science or military sense, but for that I recommend Colin Gray’s Modern Strategy. The book also does not address the impoverished nature of the nation-state system or how to build civilizations. There I recommend Philip Allott’s The Health of Nations: Society and Law beyond the State and Richard Spady’s The Leadership of Civilization Building: Administrative and civilization theory, Symbolic Dialogue, and Citizen Skills for the 21st Century.
Read to the bitter end this magnificent book is both an indictment of the nation-state system, and an ode to the role of literature as a foundation for understanding and enhancing civilization and relations among peoples rather than nations.
There is no doubt that I failed to appreciate at least a third of this book, but it held my attention, it caused me to reflect at length, and I have no qualms about recommending it as a moral and intellectual exercise to anyone.
A few quotes that made it into my notebook.
QUOTE (2): “Literature is illuminating but neutral — it can be used for good or ill by people in power.”
QUOTE (4): “What has not been much recognized is that many literary works read and praised for insights on personal feeling, such as Jane Austen’s Emma, possess a dimension wholly fit for statecraft–in Emma’s case, the gathering and mis-analysis of intelligence.”
QUOTE (7): “To be more specific about why literary insight is essential for statecraft, both endeavors are concerned with important questions that are only partly accessible to rational thought. Such matters as how a people beings to identify itself as a nation, the nature of trust between political actors or between a government and its people, how a national commits itself to a more humane course of governance–all these and many more topics dealt with in this book–can’t be understood without some ‘grasp of the ungraspable’ emotional and moral weight they bear.”
The book is state-centric, but in a clever way. The author recognizes failed states and toward the end of the book it is crystal clear that the author believes, as I do, that the suppression of self-determination has been the root cause of conflict. He looks to literature to understand the tribes and networks that were displaced or repressed by the state, as a starting point for making them whole again.
The author clearly considers the state the sole sustainable basis for legitimate power including force, and while I do not agree with this, appreciate how he melds state ideologies and the ideas of literature across the book.
Classic texts are those that help successive generations think through their own era’s challenges, and this causes me to reflect on the constancy of philosophy and values across time and space and circumstance.
QUOTE (28): “Both Xenophon’s epic and Plato’s Republic take up the matter of how a new political community is formed out of catastrophe.”
As a long-time admirer of the work of Cervantes and Don Quixote in particular (I have the family copy of the edition produced in Spain) I am fascinated by all that the author draws out of the story.
The early part of the book focuses on how various literary works focused on the great issues, the challenges, the changes, the relations between higher and lower classes, concepts of war and peace, the role of religion within a state.
He covers Machiavelli (power versus reason), Rousseau (never a legitimate government), Kant (the more republics the less war), Gibbon (intolerance of Christianity–dogma–destroyed the peace.
QUOTE (130): “If any religion can be admired by an enlightenment savant, Gibbon seems to say, it is Islam, which is rooted in reason.”
He cover Locke (right of rebellion against arbitrary government) and drives me to read Washington’s farewell address as a philosophical reflection.
QUOTE (150): “Walden is an American rewriting of the most influential treatise on the origin, legitimacy, and meaning of governance ever written, Aristotle’s Politics. Like Aristotle, Thoreau explores the fundamentals of human nature and human needs so as to ground and explain how a polity comes into being.”
Dickens and the tale of two cities are presented as the case for the inevitability of revolt in the face of oppression and injustice.
QUOTE (199): The Secret Agent is a guidebook of warnings to civilization. At first, Conrad portrays terrorism as hardly a threat at all. It is state authority that is pompous, ridiculous, bogus, even deserving of the fate that the terrorists have in store.”
I am fascinated (page 213) to read that the author clearly sees in history earlier manifestations of the military-industrial complex powered by oil and railroads.
On page 222 I find the most important point from a strategic point of view, that suppression of self determination in the author’s view (and all those he cites) was the cause of the confrontations leading to the great war. I urge those interested in this concept to read both The Search for Security: A U.S. Grand Strategy for the Twenty-First Century and The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People.
QUOTE (298): “Legitimacy in governance remains a concept too escoteric for mere politicians to grasp. Literature and the book may be required.”
I do NOT agree with those who are critical of this statement. Norman Cousins would certainly agree, his famous quote being to the effect that governments cannot discern great truths, only peoples can discern great truths. See Pathology Of Power.
I have a note, this book is a superb reintegration or homage to holistic learning and analysis.
QUOTE (225): “Today’s diplomatic representation is fragmented and evanescent. Nearly every agency of government sends its representatives abroad. There are also nongovernmental organizations, tourists, athletic teams, celebrities, corporations, films, and every form of art and entertainment. The diplomat does not represent so much as view for attention.”
As the book winds down the author observes that the world has become increasingly chaotic, with no constants such as values or philosophy.
Having been a child in Viet-Nam from 1963-1967, and then finished high school in Singapore, I am stunned to find the author quoting Minister-Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, speaking to a gathering of Harvard faculty, to the effect that the US engagement in Viet-Nam was good for Asia as a whole, in that it distracted the US and gave the rest of the Asian nations time to both defeat communism and to develop their own independent nation-states. This is the first time, ever, I have see anything justifying Viet-Nam in a grand strategic context from the point of view of the other nations in the region.
Pages 289-292 are instantly recognizable as near-subversive, and if Pope Benedict XVI wants just four pages to read in this book, those are the pages. The author discusses Pope John Paul’s address to the United Nations, and the implications of human rights as a concept that both subsumes states to a larger community good, and sets the stage for hybrid non-state actors–such as religions–to play a defining role in global governance. Since I am hugely interested in the Assisi Peace Summit that has been announced by Pope Benedict XVI following in John Paul’s footsteps, these four pages I recommend to every Catholic specifically, and all others generally.
The last sentence of the book:
QUOTE (298): “The restoration of literature as a tutor for statecraft has been the aim of this book.”
I am not qualified to extract all of the value that is in this book, but I certainly see in the author’s melding of literature and statecraft a most valuable and to my own limited knowledge unique contribution that can be used to challenge students, diplomats, and all others for the better.
I have two lists of book lists at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog (click on Books in the top bar), here I will list just a few that fall within my link allowance: