Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Student's Guide to Political Philosophy

Professor Harvey Mansfield
Professor Harvey C. Mansfield was commissioned to write A Student's Guide to Political Philosophy.  It is an excellent introduction to the discipline of Political Philosophy that contains an excellent list of some of the best books in the history of political philosophy:
Here are a few of my favorite passages from this introduction to Political Philosophy (for a more in depth discussion of the history of Political Philosophy, click here):
  • "Political philosophy is found in great books- those by Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau and others of the highest rank- and in books by professors.  You should spend much more time with the great authors than with the professors, and you should use the professors to help you understand the great authors; you should not allow yourself to be diverted or distracted from the great books by the professors.  Why not go for the gold?"
  • "The political philosopher knows for sure that politics will always be debatable, whether the debate is open or suppressed, but that fact- rather welcome when you reflect on it- does not stop him from seeking a common good that might be too good for everyone to agree with."
  • "But evil has a finger on the good; though it cannot grasp the good, evil cannot help admitting that the good is superior because that is what even evil wants."
  • "No society, not even one as free as ours, can proceed on the assumption that every custom and law is open to question, yet Socrates makes us see that every social practice is indeed questionable."
  • "Nature may incline us to what is good, but it does not tell us unambiguously what that is, or move us toward it without hindrance or distraction, as it does with other animals.  We humans are by nature political, but there is no single, programmed way of life as with bees.  Human nature includes both the freedom and the necessity to construct a regime, for we could not have freedom if nature had done everything for us."
  • "Which is more important to human life, the fact that all humans have reason, or the fact that they have it very unequally?"
  • "Jewish and Muslim political and religious traditions are often considered not to be Western, and that view of them makes sense.  But from the standpoint of the philosophical tradition, one may hold that any nation having had contact with Greek philosophy or science belongs to the West.  Certainly Muslim and Jewish philosophers were essential to that tradition not only for what they said but also for transmitting ancient philosophy to the medieval or modern West (in the political or geographical sense)."
  • "Just as for Plato the only true virtue is philosophic, so for Augustine, true virtue is Christian."
  • "It is thus of the utmost importance to understand what modernity is, how the moderns opposed the ancients (and the Christians, who in the moderns' view derived from the ancients), how modernity developed in stages, the history it experienced, and the crises it has suffered."
  • Machiavelli wondered whether he might not adopt this method himself, and oppose Christian ends with Christian means.  This was the germ of the Enlightenment, a conversion of peoples away from faith in God to faith in human control, led by philosophers (of the type we now call "intellectuals") and oriented against priests."
  • "We may be intrigued and impressed by Machiavelli, but I am obliged to say it would be wrong to approve of him.  The real remedy he provides is a cold bath for those- most all of us at one time or another- who are guilty of complacent moralism and find it easy to condemn others and hard to examine themselves.  But doesn't the Bible say some such thing?"
  • "The ancients tried to consider things from all points of view and to consult all opinions; they tried to understand and they aimed for wisdom.  Anyone who reads them now may question their relevance to today's issues, but one can hardly fail to learn from them unless one is entirely preoccupied with those issues.  But the moderns produce theories; they have a project and an aim for change or reform.  They would rather be right according to their theories than wise without a theory."
  • "Hobbes never gave much of a proof that all men are equal, but he launched the assumption that they can be taken to be equal.  The assumption is still unproven, but it has become immensely successful."
  • "It must not be forgotten that America- the 'regime' America, as Aristotle defines that word- began with a revolution, and one not merely for Americans but ostensibly on behalf of all mankind.  It must also not be forgotten that in comparison to the revolutions that followed, this was a moderate one, and perhaps for that reason it has proved more lasting."
  • "Boredom is a modern affliction that comes with modern rationality.  As life is made more predictable and secure, it becomes mediocre, uninteresting, and lacking risk or challenge."
  • "Science can enslave us as well as liberate us.  How obvious!  How could we have missed that point?"
  • "Thus the tendency of modern thought is to improve on itself and not to question itself."
  • "A fact is how things have turned out; nature is about how things have to be."
  • "Plato and Aristotle thought that facts come and go, but nature remains; nature is what should be studied."
  • "Peaceable liberal democracies, for whom wars over religion are now inconceivable, still have parties- the liberals and conservatives we know so well.  Actually, we would know them better if we studied John Stuart Mill (1806 - 1873) and Edmund Burke (1729 - 1797), the political philosophers who explain each the best.  Make sure you read both Mill and Burke, not just the one you like."
  • "This guide is not intended for other professors, so it is not equipped with footnotes.  I have written it to tell you what I really think (up to a point), but that is less important than the fact that it contains some of the most valuable information there is."
For other books by Professor Harvey C. Mansfield, click here.

Guides to the Major Disciplines

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has produced an excellent series of small books as student guides to the major disciplines:

"The ISI Guides to the Major Disciplines are reader-friendly introductions to the most important fields of knowledge in the liberal arts. Written by leading scholars for both students and the general public, they will be appreciated by anyone desiring a reliable and informative tour of important subject matter. Each title offers a historical overview of a particular discipline, explains the central ideas of its subject, and evaluates the works of thinkers whose ideas have shaped our world. Published guides assess the fields of literature, political philosophy, U.S. history, economics, psychology, and other areas."

Here is a list of the ISI Guides to the Major Disciplines:

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

What Are the Best Books?

What are the best books?

How does one propose a definitive answer to such a question?  

Is there a standard by which to differentiate between books that are good, books that are better and books that are best?

Certainly one may disagree with a particular standard of judgment, but a disagreement with one standard of judgment presupposes another.

The Standard Works
In answer to the question, "What are the best books?"  I choose to begin with the standard set forth by the canon of scripture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, aptly named the "Standard Works" :

As a mortal being, my understanding of this standard is necessarily imperfect, nevertheless it is the standard by which I choose to differentiate between books that are good, books that are better and books that are best.  It is a standard that points to Jesus Christ and testifies of Him.  It is a standard that leads souls to salvation and eternal life.  It is a standard that withstands the test of time. 

These are the best books. The best of these best books, as I understand it, is the Book of Mormon. Concerning this book the Prophet Joseph Smith said: "I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book."  A book that is best, therefore, is a book that is correct, and a book that contains precepts that draw souls closer to God.

The Book of Isaiah
There are even indications of that which is best within this best of best books.  After His Resurrection, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself declared to the Nephites: "And now, behold, I say unto you, that ye ought to search these things. Yea, a commandment I give unto you that ye search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah."  Isaiah is the most quoted of all the prophets of the Standard Works, and his words figure prominently throughout the Book of Mormon.  His words could be considered as part of the best of the best within the best of best books.  

If Isaiah is representative of the best of the best within the best of best books, then what is the best of Isaiah?  It would be difficult to do better than Isaiah 53, the great song of the suffering servant, a chapter that is quoted in its entirety by the Prophet Abinadi in Chapter 14 of the Book of Mosiah in the Book of Mormon, of which one of the best verses could very well be verse 7: "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb so he opened not his mouth." (Mosiah 14:7)  In one of the best verses of one of the best chapters revealed by one of the best prophets in the best of the best books, the very Best Son of the Best Father remained silent while He endured the worst afflictions and the worst treatment.

Is it ironic that such silence in suffering produced that which is best?




By Study and By Faith

In today's world, it is understandable that there are a lot of questions about a lot of things.  Many seek for answers. Some seek for truth.  Some can't handle the truth.

But consider how passionately the Prophet Joseph Smith loved truth: 

"When things that are of the greatest importance are passed over by weak-minded men without even a thought, I want to see truth in all its bearings and hug it to my bosom." (Joseph Smith's Sermon on Plurality of Gods, History of the Church, Vol. 6, p. 473-9)

The Prophet Joseph F. Smith, a grandson of Joseph Smith's brother Hyrum Smith, inherited and improved upon this legacy of truth.  He understood that true education and education in truth are not simply matters of filling a vessel, but the process of kindling, igniting and fanning a flame

"[Learning the] truth, combined with proper regard for it, and its faithful observance, constitutes true education. The mere stuffing of the mind with a knowledge of facts is not education. The mind must not only possess a knowledge of truth, but the soul must revere it, cherish it, love it as a priceless gem; and this human life must be guided and shaped by it in order to fulfill its destiny" (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine [1939], 269)

More recently, Elder Neal A. Maxwell expanded upon the definition of education to include the education of desire:

"Only by educating and training our desires can they become our allies instead of our enemies!"

In the Book of Mormon, the Lord revealed His standard for education through the Prophet Jacob:

"O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.

But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God." (2 Ne. 9:28-29)

One of the frequent counsels of God to His children is to seek learning and wisdom:
  • "And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith." (D&C 88:118)
  • "And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith;" (D&C 109:7)
  • "And do thou grant, Holy Father, that all those who shall worship in this house may be taught words of wisdom out of the best books, and that they may seek learning even by study, and also by faith, as thou hast said;" (D&C 109:14)
  • "And set in order the churches, and study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people." (D&C 90:15)
The Prophet Joseph Smith declared that, "The best way to obtain truth and wisdom is not to ask from books, but to go to God in prayer, and obtain divine teaching."  Even so, the Lord has counseled His children to seek words of wisdom out of the best books.  He has counseled us to seek learning by study and by faith.  He has counseled us to study and learn.  He has counseled us to become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people.

In a world full of questions, such counsel naturally gives rise to other questions.  What are the best books?  Where are these words of wisdom to be found?  What does it mean to seek learning by study and by faith?  What are the good books, languages, tongues, and people that we should become acquainted with?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Islam: A Very Short Introduction

There are a lot of misconceptions in the world about Islam.  

The Arabic word "Islam" means "submission," particularly "voluntary submission to God."  

If our understanding of Islam is limited to the reports we see on the news or to the stories we hear on the radio, then we are liable to embrace false caricatures of a vibrant faith that has produced, among other things, some of the world's greatest poetry, literature, philosophy, art, architecture and music.  

We do not have to condone acts of terrorism, such as those perpetrated in the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, in order to appreciate, with holy envy, that which is a source of truth, hope and inspiration to millions of people.  In fact, Muslim leaders such as President Sisi in Egypt have called for a "religious revolution," holding Imams responsible before Allah for leading this revolution.

In the mean time, might I suggest a short, simple book that provides a basic outline of Islam and underscores some of the essential elements of the faith?  If you have more time, read the Qur'an and try to appreciate how such a book (and such a man as Muhammad) could have arisen from 7th century Arabia. (For more resources on this topic, click here)


Thursday, January 15, 2015

One Thing Thou Lackest

"Our obsessions are as varied as our possessions. They may consist of a favored doctrinal emphasis, a favored Church program, or even a 'trademark' leadership style. Having pride in these things, we sometimes polish them carefully and stand especially ready to defend them. Sometimes, if only unconsciously, we even cultivate a cheering and reinforcing constituency which, perhaps unintentionally, encourages us in our obsessions. To us, sooner or later, it will be said, 'One thing thou lackest' (Mark 10:21). It is possible to have illegitimate pride in a legitimate role or in a deserved reputation. Such pride must go, for we are servants of Him who lived His unique life as a person of 'no reputation' (Philippians 2:7). Every obsession or preoccupation must give way in total submission. Only when we try to subdue our obsessions or preoccupations do we see how powerful they have become."

- Neal A. Maxwell, Not My Will But Thine, p. 93

Friday, January 2, 2015

Aubergine & Company

Aubergine & Company

I like eggs.  I like plants.  I even like eggplants.  But until very recently I had no idea that I would like an eggplant restaurant.  

If you are looking for a great place to enjoy a healthy, Mediterranean style breakfast, lunch or dinner, I enthusiastically endorse Aubergine & Company, located at 1365 S. State Street, Orem, Utah 84097 (Their phone number is 801 224-7484, and they cater).

With good reason, one may be suspicious of food that tastes this good while purportedly being good for you as well, but Aubergine dispels any doubts concerning either taste or nutrition.  What's more, the kind Brazilian owner, the friendly staff, the chic ambience, and the reasonable prices make Aubergine an altogether positive meal-time experience.

Even if you don't like eggs, or plants, or eggplants, give Aubergine a chance.  You might just like it.  

Not My Will, But Thine

A wise man and an astute observer of human nature once noted that "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.'" (C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce)  

As one who, however imperfectly, desires to belong to the first group of people, I have gained considerable inspiration from Neal A. Maxwell's enlightening and soul-stretching book "Not My Will, But Thine" : The Christlike Path of Submission to God's Will.  True disciples of Jesus Christ and earnest seekers of the Kingdom of God will enjoy how masterfully and eloquently Elder Maxwell unfolds simple and profound Gospel truths to the hearts and minds of those with eyes to see and ears to hear:

"In his superbly creative style the author explores this important principle of willing, loving submission to our Heavenly Father.  He clearly shows this to be not a sacrifice of will but an elevation to a higher purpose and privilege.  As such, it offers a life of faith, peace, and joy in the Lord."