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Writing Worth Reading

The Pope’s War

Counter-intuitive sketch of Pope Francis’s style. He may be easy-going in public, and uncombative on some doctrinal matters, but in private he is waging a “culture war” on the Vatican bureaucracy. “It looks as if the sort of Italian cardinals who brought down Benedict have been chased out.” But it’s not at all clear that Francis’s preferred alternative, a decentralisation of authority, will work much better (Metered) (1,790 words)

Robot Cars With Adjustable Ethics Settings

An approach (though not a solution) to the problem of ethics for driverless cars, and potentially quite a useful intermediate step: Allow the user to select from a range of “ethics settings”. One person could instruct the car to value his life over all others; another might prefer the the car to value all lives the same and minimize harm overall; a third might want to minimize legal liability and costs for herself. (1,280 words)

Wicked Sons: Apostasy In Judaism

Judaism has “always made hostility to the traitor, the deserter, the child who grows up to turn on the community, into a central organising principle”. But rebellion can be another form of submission — as with the writer and critic Norman Finkelstein, “a man entirely defined by Jewishness” who “performs his Jewish identity by publicly attacking other Jews, in a way that seems compulsive as much as deliberate” (3,640 words)

No Theatricks

Discussion of Edmund Burke’s thought, drawing mainly on The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke by David Bromwich. Burke “foreshadows the 19th century in seeing everything – law, morality, solidarity – as historically evolved, the outcome of experience rather than design”. Hence his opposition to the French Revolution: He saw that “this brutal rupture with the past would not easily settle down into a new normality” (5,100 words)

What Would Krishna Do?

Philosophers discuss Hinduism. “Many Hindus believe in God, but not all in the same God. Some Hindu philosophers are atheists, arguing that no sacred religious text such as the Veda could be the word of God, since authorship, even divine authorship, implies the logical possibility of error. The removal of injustice, rather than the creation of a perfect or ideal society, is the target of political action” (Metered) (2,250 words)

Death Of A Religion: Isis And The Yazidi

Yazidism is “a vastly ancient form of bird-worship”, probably the oldest surviving religion in the world, dating back 6,000 years to Sumeria and Assyria. Its objects of veneration include a Devil-figure, called Melek Taus, a variant of Moloch, imagined in the form of a peacock angel. For this heresy the Yazidis in northern Iraq face extermination by the jihadis of the Islamic State. “The Devil has revealed a sense of irony” (640 words)

Gaza And Proportionate War

A philosopher asks: Has Israel’s attack on Gaza been proportionate? Answer: No. Hamas is wicked, but too many Palestinian civilians have been killed relative to the number of Israeli civilians at risk from Hamas. “While it may be permissible for you to kill one innocent bystander as a side effect of saving your life, it is probably not permissible to kill two, and certainly impermissible to kill three” (2,650 words)

The Four Letters Of God

Debate continues in Hungarian learned journals as to the origins of the Hungarian word for ‘God’, Isten. Happily, the author is in a position to advance the discussion significantly by consulting a 16th-century multilingual dictionary which he bought for a dollar thirty years ago in a junk shop. “It comes from the second aorist of the verb ʻto be’ ἴστημι, which sounds ἐϛὶν [ἐστὶν]: ʻI exist, I am by way of myself’” (1,090 words)

The Great Philosophers: Theodor Adorno

Adorno was preoccupied with the question of how we spend our leisure. He saw leisure as our prime opportunity to improve our lives by absorbing high culture and philosophy. He railed against radio and television as a threat to human flourishing. He believed that capitalism corrupted human nature by creating artificial wants which obscured our real wants. Luckily, he did not live to see the Internet (1,480 words)

More Engaging Copy For The Ten Commandments

What Moses might have got if God had outsourced the job to Upworthy: “This Little Girl Bore False Witness and the Results Will Shock You” (120 words)

If A Cat Could Talk

Dogs confirm us, cats confound us. Our relationship with cats is an “eruption of the wild into the domestic”. Cats blend in; their lethal instincts align with our interests; but they do not assimilate; they belong to the night. Cats are “vehicles for our projections, misrecognition, and primitive recollection”. They are part of our symbolic universe as much as our physical universe. Michel Foucault called his own cat ‘Insanity’ (2,400 words)

How To Be Good

Another superb profile from the New Yorker’s archive, de-paywalled for the summer. Derek Parfit is perhaps the most original moral philosopher in the English-speaking world. He believes there are true answers to moral questions, as there are to mathematical ones; and that “there is nothing more urgent for him to do in his brief time on earth than discover what these truths are and persuade others of their reality” (10,670 words)

Why Did Nobody Resurrect The Caliphate Before Isis?

Asked and answered, succinctly. Because earlier Islamist groups — Hamas, Hezbollah, FIS, Taliban — were products of national struggles, with national objectives; they were focused on defeating the infidels, not the Shia; and not many people want to live back in the middle ages, where the caliphate belongs. “The extremism and brutality of da’ash is really off-putting to your average guy on the street” (300 words)

No Church in The State Of Nature

Jay-Z and Kanye West, in No Church In The Wild, relate Hobbes’s state of nature to Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma. “They seem to think that without a belief in a God that creates rules there would be no morality. So for them the state of nature is like a world in which there is no God to create or enforce moral rules. This leads us to the Euthyphro dilemma: Is something good because God loves it? Or, does God love it because it’s good?” (950 words)

The Great Philosophers: Hegel

Admirably candid bluffer’s guide. “Hegel put his finger on a crucial feature of modern life: we long for progress and improvement yet we are continually confronted by conflict and evidence of setbacks. His insight is that growth requires the clash of divergent ideas and therefore will be painful and slow”. New readers beware: “He writes horribly. He is confusing and complicated when he should be clear and direct” (1,530 words)

Melissa Lane Discusses Plato

Interview with Princeton philosophy professor, discussing outstanding books about Plato. “What we find in Plato, explicitly, is tremendous anxiety about the nature of writing. Of course the great paradox is that he’s writing, he’s reflecting on the limits of writing, the challenges of writing, of this new technology, very much the way we now reflect on the Internet and social media, how is this going to change our culture?” (3,890 words)

The Great Philosophers: Epicurus

Epicurus, born in 341BC, was famed for his “skilful and relentless focus” on one subject: happiness. “Previously, philosophers had wanted to know how to be good; Epicurus insisted he wanted to focus on how to be happy”. His advice: Don’t worry about pursuing love, status and luxury. Better to have a community of good friends, work for yourself, and spend part of each day thinking (1,200 words)

The Continuing Mysteries Of The Aleppo Codex

More on the fantastic story of the Aleppo Codex, the oldest known copy of the complete Bible, compiled at Tiberias in Galilee in 930CE, taken to Jerusalem, stolen by Crusaders in 1099, ransomed by the Jews of Cairo, stored for six centuries in Aleppo, lost in a riot in 1947 — and found ten years later “in mysterious circumstances in the new state of Israel”; but with 200 pages — The Torah — missing. Now read on (4,900 words)

“Of Sexual Irregularities”, By Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham, philosopher of utilitarianism, wrote “voluminous manuscripts” about sexual freedom. He reasoned that nothing could be more conducive to human happiness than “all-comprehensive liberty for all modes of sexual gratification”. But for two hundred years his trustees and editors suppressed these papers. A first selection is at last appearing as a volume in Bentham’s collected works (1,630 words)

Eulogy For Sidney Morgenbesser

Ten years after Morgenbesser’s death, the eulogy from his funeral. His gift for humour overshadowed his brilliance as a philosopher; he published little; history remembers him best for a one-liner delivered from the back of a lecture theatre. And yet: “He shaped the field in ways that can’t be measured by publications, in ways related more to conversation and sheer presence and force of personality. His impact staggers the mind” (3,100 words)

The Philosopher In The World

Interview with John Searle. Interesting throughout. Topics include human rights, animal rights, philosophers in government, Bernard Williams, philosophy of language. “There is a very good case to be made for saying that if you grant the validity of universal human rights, then it looks like it would be some kind of special pleading if you said there’s no such thing as universal animal rights” (2,328 words)

Francis: A Pitch-Perfect Pope

Pope Francis, “the world’s most popular leader”, is deeply marked by the “three towering influences” of his Argentine youth: the Catholic church, Juan Domingo Perón, and football. “Francis is usually explained through his Jesuit background. But he can also be understood as a typically Argentine Peronist politician. He is a brilliant populist communicator like Perón. Football is central to his communication” (860 words)

Judging Spinoza

Should Amsterdam’s Jewish community reverse the 17C excommunication of Spinoza? Probably not; nor, probably, would Spinoza want the ban lifted. He rejected Jewish doctrines and Jewish law. “To want to reintegrate Spinoza into Jewish life by lifting the ban would be to misunderstand what Spinoza stood for, given his strongly negative views on organised religion, and on Judaism in particular” (Metered) (1,780 words)

The Empire Of Alain de Botton

Largely sympathetic portrait of de Botton, philosopher-king of highbrow self-help, whose moralising essays on everyday subjects — art, sex, travel, status — have sold 6m copies, but also made him an easy target for critics. “He comes up with snappy ideas. He is unbelievably productive (he rarely sleeps past 6am). He gives YouTube lectures. But all this still doesn’t quite explain how intensely he gets under people’s skin” (2,560 words)

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