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‘Most Idealist thinkers were Pelagians’. Didn’t everyone already know that? If you didn’t know it already, you might be lost with this book, because he’s not going to explain what that means, but he just asserts it. I found that kind of writing incredibly refreshing, and I like an author who doesn’t talk down to the reader (or in my case listener) and he always assumed the reader was interested in the topic under consideration and already has a familiarity with the topic under consideration. Not once, was I not on the edge of my seat as he was telling his story and connecting the dots for me. (I do most of my listening while riding a bicycle and I was literally on the edge of my seat, but I meant it metaphorically, of course).
The Enlightenment, the German Idealist and the Romantics are covered in detail, as are the masters of suspicion (Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud), and then the nature of culture and post-modernism. Every page was a delight, and I probably disagreed with something he was saying on every other page. He was right when he said Hegel oversaw the completion of history in his own mind, but everything else he said about Hegel and his ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ I took with a jaundice eye. And his statement that ‘Schopenhauer remained a full-blooded metaphysician, a nightmarish version of the Hegel he envied so deeply’ beggars belief for me. Perhaps, that is true, but I’ve never seen a footnote more cutting towards someone then Schopenhauer had towards Hegel in his ‘Will and Representation’, and one can’t help notice the different world views of each. Yes, they both claim kinship with Kant. In particular, Schopenhauer says that directly in ‘Will as Representation’, but Hegel uses Kant only to go elsewhere and uses him as launching pad.
I’m nitpicking. I just love the way this guy wrote. He was not afraid of dropping names or concepts or educating his reader. I don’t think it’s possible to find a more concise review of the period under consideration then this survey and it was all tied together by his narrative: religion always needs to be with us and culture acts as its surrogate. As he’s telling his story he gets at why Kierkegaard and Nietzsche really matter. Both are anti-humanist (he doesn’t use that word) and want feelings to be our guide for being human. The author definitely prefers Kierkegaard’s slant over all, and would think of Nietzsche as a nihilist. Nietzsche argued that the Christian who outsourced their values to a book, and they would believe that their eternal payoffs could be dependent on behavior in this life were the real nihilist because they were the ones with no principles just dogma.
He loves his Edmund Burke. He’ll quote him all throughout the book. That means the author has a predisposition towards culture, community and character in making us good humans. This book loves playing with the importance of culture. Pascal was mentioned in this book but not quoted for saying ‘culture is nature’ as Hubert Dreyfus mentioned in his lecture on Heidegger. What Pascal meant by that is that we can’t easily rise above the world we are thrown into and the ‘they’ (das man) and our authentic selves are hard for us to obtain. This author thinks the truth is out there and is not that hard for us to find especially if we are willing to believe in false world structures even if we know they are false.
The author really had a lot of Allan Bloom, Saul Bellow type thinking within him. ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ has many themes in it and one of them was that believing a lie even when we know it is a lie can be a good thing. Another theme the author has that overlapped with that book was that identity politics spring from post-modern thought. He’s walking a fine line by the way he uses culture such that one should embrace ones culture because it is ones culture. That’s sort of a restating of how people want to use patriotism to justify their bigotry.
I really think the word ‘believe’ is a loaded word. ‘Believe in’ means faith in. For me, ‘faith’ is always best translated as ‘to pretend to know something you don’t know’. ‘Belief’ is a word one uses when one has an opinion about something but not with enough sufficient reason to have ‘justified true belief’ since the something does not quite comport to reality, nor is it internally consistent, nor even pragmatic in the William James usage of the word. The author wants to bring belief back as a standard for truth in his quest for refuting the humanism and modernity which were firmed up during the Enlightenment.
The author called Sam Harris a liberal. Harris wanted to use a nuclear bomb after 9/11 and wanted to torture more often (the book doesn’t mention the torture part but Harris did say that). Therefore all liberals believe in stupid things (there’s probably a name for that fallacy because it’s such a common poor way to argue). We currently have a president who doesn’t understand why we don’t use nuclear weapons and has said that if the North Korean Ambassador doesn’t behave properly we will wipe out their country which is populated with human beings and they would die or suffer in the process, and Trump has said that he would use torture more often if he could. So, not only a liberal can think that way, but the leader of the Republican Party thinks that way too. (But that doesn’t mean all conservatives think that way!).
I had a bet with myself that this book would mention Proust. It did. The quote was ‘The imagination as a means of grace is one of modernism's abiding motifs, from the redemptive power of memory in Proust's great novel to the priestly vocation of the Joycean artist’. This links back to two separate items I’ve talked about above: the ‘Pelagian’ quote above and Schopenhauer. Pelagius believed prays made a difference and that salvation could come from good works. In a word, Augustine did not. He believed in a necessary universe created from the free will of God and salvation was through God’s Grace alone. Schopenhauer in the very end of his book ‘Will as Representation’ explicitly cites Grace as a supplement to his Will alone and disses Pelagius by name. All of those main points are also within this book, but the author spreads it out across the book, because he has a lot he wants to tell the reader and expects them to pick them up for themselves. I give kudos to a writer that has that much trust in his reader.
There’s a whole lot I disagree with the author with, actually, probably almost everything, but I don’t read to reinforce my beliefs, I read to be challenged. This book was a delightful challenge and within it were all of the major themes that have been lurking about philosophy since the time of Spinoza. (BTW, I think the author read a different version of Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’ then I did because I took away a whole different set of lessons then he did).
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Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?
Yes, if that friend had a command of German philosophy of the 18th and 19th centuries. This is tough going as an audiobook, when some of the names and ideas overlap at least to less informed English-speaking readers who must rely on this collection of lectures as heard.
If you’ve listened to books by Terry Eagleton before, how does this one compare?
Would you listen to another book narrated by Paul Boehmer?
Was Culture and the Death of God worth the listening time?
Yes, but I was disappointed that Marxist critiques were sidelined. Surprising from a scholar of Marx. I did learn more about Nietzsche among others, on the other hand.
Any additional comments?
As lectures, these are very challenging. Eagleton has a bit of wit, as always, to leaven the density.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful