Tag Archives: philosophy

My first “binge watch” – “The Good Place” TV series

I don’t watch much TV. A little sports…weather…NO news… But last week my family started watching “The Good Place” and I got hooked!

“The Good Place” is heaven (in the afterlife). Protagonist Eleanor realizes she is there by mistake, and starts trying to earn her way in, retroactively. She studies ethics with Chidi, a deceased university professor. Eleanor and Chidi become friends with Tahani and Jianyu (aka Jason), two other imperfect souls. All are trying to figure out how to be GOOD.

My husband and son watched this as philosophical commentary. Both are academically well grounded in ethics and philosophy. They decided the series would be a useful supplement to a class in ethics.

And it’s FUNNY, full of throwaway lines that cracked me up. They even manage to make the Trolley Problem funny. (I consider “trolleyology” the most pretentious word ever invented.)

After lots of effort at avoiding being sent to “The BAD Place”, the series starts to speculate about “The MEDIUM Place.”

So far, “The Good Place” has run for three 13-episode seasons, and apparently a fourth is in the works. Wikipedia characterizes the show as comedy/fantasy. Check it out!

Upon reflection, I realized that I DID do some earlier binge watching! I watched and re-watched BBC2’s Fawlty Towers  (from 1975-1979) so long ago that we had to buy the VCR tapes. My kids LOVED it! John Cleese might be the funniest actor I ever saw. The supporting cast was hilarious.

Nonetheless, I’m returning to my usual preoccupation with books. But if you tell me what YOU binge watch, I’ll check it out!

“The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” by Eric Hoffer

This book was published in 1951, when the world was struggling to understand what had led to World War II and the Holocaust. The “true believers” Hoffer analyzed were Nazis and Fascists, with some discussion of early Christians and other movements. He believed all mass movements shared a definable set of characteristics.

Full disclosure: I didn’t read this book! I attended two 2-hour seminars on it, sponsored by my husband’s alma mater, and I read ABOUT the book and the author.

A subtext to our discussion was the election of Donald Trump. We’ve all suffered from shock. What does this mean about our country? Are we headed towards fascist type authoritarianism? Who voted for Trump, and why? As far as I know, the fourteen people (total) who attended the two seminars did not vote for Trump.

We decided that Trump’s supporters were not “true believers” in the same sense as Nazis and Fascists. There’s no reason to believe they would die for Donald Trump.

Hoffer believes certain segments of a population are vulnerable to demagogic leadership, namely those who feel angry and powerless. He speaks of spoiled or damaged lives, and mentions “failed artists”. I can’t parse that category.

Our discussion veered to other groups that offer up their lives. Suicide bombers. The Arab Spring protester who burned himself to death. Kamikazi pilots.

Though often described as a philosopher, Hoffer was not an academic. Wikipedia lists his occupations as “author and longshoreman”. He may not have graduated from high school. He was fluently literate in both English and German, and read voraciously. The US military refused to enlist him due to medical condition and possibly his age – he was 40 at the start of WW II. How he managed to publish “The True Believer” while laboring as a dockworker in San Francisco puzzles me.

A great deal of Hoffer’s writing was never published, but is available to scholars. I hope more of it will be extracted for publication. Now is the time for public dialog on the issues he studied.

“Margaret Fuller – A New American Life” by Megan Marshall

It’s been suggested that I should consistently provide the following:

  • Published 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 375 pages (text) + 95 pages (contents, illustrations, prologue, epilogue, notes, index).

It’s been over a week since I posted about a book. That’s a long time for me! The reason is that I found a book that took some time to read, and it amply rewarded my effort.

Margaret Fuller was born in 1810 and died in 1850, living in and around Boston, then New York City and finally spending four years in Europe.

SPOILER ALERT! The circumstances of Margaret Fuller’s death in 1850 were shocking and very sad. If you want to read her life story in proper order, stop now, read the book and then come back and consider my reflections.

Margaret Fuller was born just over 200 years ago. A very bright first child, she was initially educated by her father, who intended to convey to her “everything” he had learned at Harvard. She soaked it up, and later, deprived of any opportunity for college, became her own teacher of classics and languages, setting very high expectations for herself.

At the age of 25, Margaret’s father died and she took responsibility for her mother and several younger siblings. Fear of poverty shadowed her life. But Boston was in a state of intellectual ferment (the so-called New England renaissance), and Margaret, both well educated and outspoken, found a place among the Transcendentalists and other writers and thinkers of the day.

Margaret edited the new journal called The Dial and published a book Woman in the Nineteenth Century which is considered the first classic of the American feminist movement. Working for the New York Tribune, she became the first American full time writer of book reviews.

Margaret’s burning wish to travel to Europe was finally fulfilled when, at the age of 36, she accepted the position of governess in a Quaker family that toured England, spent some time in Paris, and then went to Italy.

In Rome, Margaret’s life took a turn that her New England friends and family would not have expected, and, indeed, she told them nothing about it for many months. She fell in love, bore a child, and married. Before her infant was a year old, revolution broke out in Italy. Margaret was firmly on the side of change, hoping for democracy and reform. Her husband fought in the defense of “free” Rome and Margaret worked as a nursing volunteer in a makeshift hospital.

The revolution failed, and Margaret, with her husband and child, made plans to return to Massachusetts, where she expected to support her family by writing.

Unable to afford travel on a passenger liner, they embarked on a freighter that accommodated a few passengers. Bad luck plagued the trip. The ship’s captain died. In inexperienced hands, the ship ran aground near Long Island (NY). Some crew and passengers survived, but not Margaret, her husband or their child.

What impressed me about Margaret Fuller was the way she threw herself into the issues of her times. She wrote about race, prison reform and education among many other topics.

This book by Megan Marshall is right in the “sweet spot” between popular and academic writing. This is biography at its best. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in feminism and/or American intellectual history.

“The Sunday Philosophy Club” series by Alexander McCall Smith

It’s been two weeks since I posted about reading a book! What’s going on? There are books all over the house…

I went on an unusual (for me) binge of reading a single author, namely Alexander McCall Smith. I limited myself to the Sunday Philosophy Club series, aka the “Isabel Dalhousie” series. These books have charm! I enjoy them for several reasons.

Isabel Dalhousie is a delightful heroine – wealthy, scholarly, and kind. Her character flaw is a tendency to get involved in other people’s business. I’ve read six books in the eight book series. At this point, she feels like a distant relative, the kind that can be counted on to send a card every Christmas.

The library categorizes these books as mysteries, but Isabel is (usually) not out solving crimes. She deals in ethical dilemmas. What is one person’s obligation to another? How should neighbors and families live together? Fittingly, she is editor of a Journal of Applied Ethics.

The books are linked by the “super” plot of Isabel’s love life. Her sweetheart is a handsome young musician, fourteen years her junior. Initially, he dates Isabel’s niece, a young and restless woman who seems to have a new boyfriend every month. This family drama is in counterpoint to much of Isabel’s highly rational and organized life.

McCall Smith uses these books to offer his opinions about art, literature and culture in Scotland. I don’t, by any means, catch all his literary references, but I have fun trying. Maybe I’ll check out the poetry of W H Auden, whom Isabel quotes frequently. In one book, he takes a swipe at “the trolley problem”, an annoying preoccupation of certain academic philosophers.

Another point in favor of these books is that the series takes place in Edinburgh, Scotland. I was fortunate enough to visit there almost 20 years ago. So much about the city appealed to me!

I’m saving the last two books in the series for my next train trip or serious head cold. Why take a chance on the unknown when I know exactly where to find a book that is both comfortable and intelligent?

McCall Smith has written dozens of books – several series of novels, children’s books and law textbooks. I’d like to look at some of his earliest work and the novels that aren’t in his series. Who knows what I’ll find?! I hope McCall Smith keeps on writing. I will certainly keep reading!

“Fire From Heaven” by Mary Renault

On a whim, I read Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault. It was her first book based on the life of Alexander the Great, covering the period from his early childhood until his father (King Phillip of Macedon) died. Alexander eventually vanquished the High King Darius of Persia and ruled a vast empire until his death at age 33. He ended his wars of conquest because his soldiers refused to go beyond the Indus River into the Indian subcontinent.

If you are curious about the ancient world but intimidated by “the classics”, this is a way to get started. Several of Renault’s books impressed me when I read them 40 years ago. Fire From Heaven did not disappoint me. Renault also wrote two non-fiction books about Alexander and the Persian Wars.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Fire From Heaven is young Alexander’s education. His father was portrayed as a Macedonian who passionately admired Athens and wished to be “accepted” as overlord of Greece. Phillip hired the philosopher Aristotle to tutor Alexander. Perhaps this is what allowed him to develop into a leader who was greatly loved, rather than merely being feared.

Renault was born in England but spent the later half of her life in South Africa, where her lesbianism was more socially accepted. Her literary treatment of homosexual love in the ancient world is probably more sympathetic and respectful than most other authors.

Courtesy of Wikipedia, I learned that Renault (who died in 1983 at the age of 78) wrote six contemporary novels between1939 and 1953 before she concentrated on the ancient world. I look forward to exploring them.