This Changes Everything

Naomi Klein should be considered one of the champions of the Green movement. Her book This Changes Everything is excellent in exposing the harsh truth that we are on a collision course with our planet’s climate.

This book is very depressing. And rightly so: in most chapters we are told how we exploit our planet and are addicted to fossil fuel. We place profit above conserving our environment and wage war on the climate in the process. Unbridled capitalism is the culprit. We always want more and more wealth and luxury and are incapable of restraint, to be satisfied with less. Of course there is a positive message as well about change, the rise of a movement which aims to save the climate.

But even so, I’m still pessimistic. As the secretary of GroenLinks (the Dutch Green Party) in South Holland, a few of my fellow board members always eat meat when we have dinner before our meetings. I’ve noticed snacks with meat being served at events organized by our party. If even these people don’t understand the impact of cattle rearing on our climate, how will the average Joe ever understand? It’s the same with air travel.

I read the book while I was on a winter sports holiday in Austria with my family. I never really liked winter sports because of the mass tourism aspects of it, but as I read the book I realized it was harmful to our climate as well. Huge amounts of trees need to be cleared from mountain slopes to make ski slopes. All those lifts, piste caterpillars and snow guns require a lot of fossil fuels. Of course there are much more examples.

Even though I’m observing our collective excesses, I’m to blame as well. That is why I want to improve on myself, I want to drastically decrease the pressure I exert on the climate. Even though I eat almost no meat anymore, I consider going completely vegan. If possible I will never use aircraft which run on fossil fuel anymore and use the train and other public transport instead. The latter might not be possible because I have to compromise with my girlfriend Stephanie. Nor does she want to sell her car, but at least we can switch to an electric car. I want to make our next house energy neutral.

The Odyssey

A year ago I finished reading the Odyssey. I read the English prose translation by Walter Shewring, published as Oxford’s World Classics. I liked this translation, it evoked emotions of disgust with me as I read about the various gruesome ways in which Odysseus’ crew meet their end. Also, I like that the Odyssey has a more diverse environment than the Iliad, which is restricted to Troy and its surroundings.

What struck me was the emphasis on the importance of hospitality in the story. We did not see this in the Iliad, which was about the Trojan War, but the setting of the Odyssey is different. Odysseus and Telemachus are treated very generously as guests when they visit those people who bear them no ill will. This was the concept of xenia for the ancient Greeks, who considered it a religious obligation. The plot of the Odyssey moralizes about this issue. Penelope’s suitors abuse the hospitality of Odysseus’ household while he is away. When Odysseus visits the suitors in his palace disguised as a beggar to ask for food, the suitors insult and mistreat him. Together with their other misdeeds, this is a huge transgression which condemns the suitors to their fate. Ultimately, Odysseus sheds his disguise and kills them with the approval of the Gods.

We can still see how other non-Western cultures attach a similar degree of importance to hospitality. A friend who traveled through Iran told me he was amazed by the hospitality he was offered there as a stranger. It’s a pity we don’t have value hospitality in our Western culture anymore. Fortunately CouchSurfing is a notable exception, which I contribute to myself as a host of foreign travelers in Rotterdam.

The concept of xenia brings me to a part of the plot of the Odyssey which I did not understand. When Odysseus and his crew visit the island of the Cyclopes, the Cyclops Polyphemus makes it clear he does care for the Gods of Olympus. He even goes as far as saying that the Cyclopes are stronger than the Gods. He violates the custom of xenia by eating six of Odysseus’ men. When Odyssey and his crew blind him and escape, Polyphemus reveals he is the son of Poseidon and prays to his father to curse Odysseus’ journey. Even though Odysseus sacrifices to Zeus, in hindsight Odysseus thinks the supreme God did not accept his sacrifice and wanted to see his ships and crew destroyed. Zeus seems to consent to the vengeance of Poseidon, who wishes to prevent Odysseus from swiftly sailing home to Ithaca.

Brown (1996) explains that the concept of xenia does not apply to the Cyclopes because they live a society very different from that of the Greeks. Because Odysseus cannot make a claim to xenia, Zeus does not support him and allows to Poseidon proceed with his vengeance. Segal (1992) argues that Homer’s contemporaries would approve of the right of a family member to take vengeance if someone in their family were injured, which justifies Poseidon’s anger. Also, Odysseus does not interpret the will of the Zeus correctly. Poseidon’s wrath is the reason Odysseus is prevented from a swift homecoming, but Zeus did not plan it. Furthermore, the destruction of Odysseus’ ships and crew are not caused by Poseidon’s anger: it is the consequence of the impious acts of his men and the according divine punishment.

I think the most extensive and convincing analysis is given by Friedrich (1991) however. Poseidon’s anger is pure vengeance, but in the prologue Zeus asserts the Gods do not cause human suffering on an arbitrary basis. Zeus condones Poseidon’s persecution of Odysseus because he needed to be punished for his hybris. Odysseus visits the island of the Cyclopes because he wants to see if they are civilized or savage, but subjecting mortals to this test is the prerogative of the Gods. While Polyphemus is absent from his cave, Odysseus helps himself to the food stored in the cave, making him the first to violate the code of hospitality. When Odysseus and his men escape from Polyphemus, he presumptuously asserts that he punished him in the name of the Gods for failing the ‘hospitality test’. He forgets that the Gods did not sanction his ‘mission’. In his final remark, he insults Poseidon by claiming that the God cannot heal the eye of Polyphemus. As a consequence, Poseidon punishes him out of vengeance and Zeus punishes him for his hybris.

There is one more thing which seems inconsistent in the plot: the age of Odysseus. Before he left for Troy he was already king of Ithaca and married with Penelope, who was pregnant with Telemachus at the time of his departure. To enjoy some measure of authority with the other Greek leaders I think it is unlikely he was 20 years old, probably more like 25 or 30. The Siege of Troy lasts ten years. He wanders for ten years before he returns to Ithaca. In the tenth year he ends up on Scheria, the island of the Phaeacians, before sailing to Ithaca. During an athletic competition on Scheria the Phaeacian Laodamas remarks that Odysseus is not old at all. This seems strange, even if we assume that Odysseus was 20 years old when he left for Troy, he must have been at least 40 years old at this point. I can’t find any comments on this issue by scholars however.

One more thing which I though was remarkable is that the suitors invade the palace of Odysseus with ease. There is no one to stop them and protect Penelope and Telemachus. If Odysseus gathered such a large contingent of Ithacans to follow him to Troy, surely he could have appointed a servant to rule in his absence and some guards to protect his palace? You could argue that we should forgive Homer for this, because without the suitors and their demise the Odyssey wouldn’t have been such an exciting story. If I were Homer however, I would have constructed the story in such a way that Odysseus did make proper arrangements for the interim rule of his kingdom before his departure. Then it could be told how the servants tasked with taking care of the kingdom eventually betray Odysseus and collaborate with the suitors, so the finale of the Odyssey is kept intact.

I think the Odyssey is a great story to read, but I’m divided on whether I actually like the character of Odysseus. On the one hand you sympathize with him, you appreciate his cunning and consider him a hero. Especially memorable for me is how he tricks Polyphemus with his name. On the other hand, he is a lowly pirate. When he tells the story of his travels to king Alcinous of the Phaeacians he describes how he raided and killed the Cicones as the first thing he did on the way home from Troy. The Trojan War, if we are to believe Homer, was at least justified because Paris had taken Helen. But the Cicones were simply unfortunate to live along the route of Odysseus’ journey home. Odysseus tells of the raid so casually at the court of Alcinous, where nobody seems to be startled by the fact that he is a pirate. This seems to indicate that piracy was an accepted practice in Mycenaean Greece. Assuming that the Cicones were probably non-Greek ‘barbarians’, raiding them was probably even less objectionable.

Why e-books still suck

I like reading the books of the Oxford World’s Classics imprint. So far I’ve bought the paper versions through the British Internet store The Book Depository because of the fixed prices for books in the Netherlands, but I’ve been considering to switch to e-books. Recently e-book readers have been getting cheaper, costing less than € 100 now. However, the e-books of OWC titles themselves are only available with DRM, which is a barrier to adoption for me.

DRM is simply unacceptable to me because I value my freedom. DRM enables companies like Amazon to limit my freedom, even giving them a kill switch to do so. The publishing industry doesn’t seem to understand that DRM doesn’t help. Apple already stopped using DRM for music in iTunes back in January 2009. Some have seen the light already though, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is available without DRM for example. I can only hope the rest of the publishing industry will follow suit soon.

I’d like to use an e-book reader, obviously it’s much easier to take along if you travel than paper books. Paper books are damaged easily, while e-books don’t. The only disadvantage is that you can’t ‘impress’ people with a filled bookshelf anymore. But I’ll only buy one when there is a sufficient amount of titles available without DRM.

How to Win Friends and Influence People

This book was written by  Dale Carnegie and first published in 1936. It was one of the earliest bestselling self-help books. Not only the content of this title is magnificent, its title is too because it’s so lovely to the point. As the title suggests the book helps you learn how your social skills can be improved. It still remains popular today, which is not surprising given that its topic of elementary human behaviour has not changed much over the course of history. What makes this book so special compared to other books I’ve read is that the core principle of every chapter is summarised at the end in one sentence. For example, the core principle of the first chapter is summarised as ‘don’t criticise, condemn or complain’. This makes the message simple, compact and powerful.

While the message is simple, applying the theory in practice can be difficult. Sometimes we’re prone to exhibit behaviour that is counter productive to social relations and breaks the principles which are advised in this book. Let me give you a personal example.

As you might know from my earlier posts on my weblog I visited the Desktop Summit in Berlin in August of this year. At the conference there was a door in the back of the main conference room which offered the shortest route to all the other smaller conference rooms. At the start of the conference the organisers told the public that the door was not supposed to be used when presentations were given and that it would remain closed then. This way people travelling to other conference rooms couldn’t disturb presentations in the main room and they were forced to take a detour. I’m not sure, but maybe they also told that opening the door would trigger a fire alarm for the whole building. Whether they had or hadn’t told it, I didn’t know about it. A few days later during the conference a presentation in the main conference room just finished and I and some people were still in the room, chatting or working on their notebooks. Then someone appeared on the other end of the backdoor which was still closed. The guy asked us to open the door, some people said the door was not supposed to be used (even though the presentation was already finished and from a distance for which the message might not have been audible for the person behind the door) and ignored him while the guy was still asking for help.

I thought this attitude was not social and walked over to the door. The guy asked me if the door could be opened, which I was hesitant to do. I told him he needed to take a detour, but he told me he couldn’t find the way. With no one else helping and not wanting to ignore this guy, I decided to open the door. The door handle moved, the door wouldn’t open but the fire alarm did turn on. Ouch. I went to the organisers and explained and apologised for triggering the alarm. It would take some time to silence the alarm again. There was nothing I could help with to alleviate the problem, so I went back to the conference room. There one of the guys who had ignored the guy behind the door started talking to me. He asked my why I tried to open the door, I explained myself. This man was clearly incapable of empathy and started a verbal battle to condemn me. Even though I told him I had wanted to help the guy behind the door, he told me a had done him a bear service, disregarding my good intentions. Of course it was obvious he broke the principle not to criticise and condemn, he had made angry. The discussion ended when I told him I was done with talking to him. Had I observed the principle to quickly and emphatically admit my mistake, meaning I would have agreed with him about the bear service, the conversation probably would have taken a very different turn. Had I agreed with him, there no longer would have been a reason for him to condemn me, and we could have reconciled. Yet in this case I my feelings of contempt got the better of me, and I think many others would have responded in a similar way. This example illustrates why it can be difficult to strive for harmony instead of giving in to the urge of anger.

This shows that this book is not a title you read once, you re-read it and you work consciously to improve your social skills. Even before I read the book I knew that principles such as being a good listener and making compliments are important in social interactions. When these principles were explored I still learned something new due to the way the principles are elaborated on in the book. Some principles were also new for me, such as remembering the names of other people. That’s something I do very badly and which I try to improve quite consciously since I’ve read this book. The contemporary and historical examples given in the chapters to explain the principles can feel a bit dated because of the title’s age or American-centric because the author is an American. Sometimes the advantages of applying the principles can be portrayed in a manner which might come across as too enthusiastic, but if necessary the enthusiasm is parried by adequate nuance. This could be the most important book I’ve read for a long time and I’d highly recommend it to anyone. The only disadvantage is that this book is not in the public domain even if it was published in 1936.

I have a lot of respect for the author, Dale Carnegie. My edition of How to Win Friends and Influence People also included an afterword which told his life story. His life was very difficult during his youth, yet he managed to succeed later in life and lived the American dream. I noticed the troubles he had during his youth also served as inspiration for his book, he gives similar examples of other people who became very successful in later life after a difficult youth. His knowledge of social skills didn’t come natural to him, he became knowledgeable only after making mistakes and gaining much experience. Indeed, Thomas Edison’s phrase ‘genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration’ completely applies to him.

Analects

Finally I have finished reading the Analects of Confucius, or Master Kong as he is actually named. This work of Chinese philosophy (or religion, depending on how you define Confucianism) is quite different from the works of the Western thinkers I’ve read. It requires a lot of effort to understand. Even after reading the introduction and the explanatory notes, many questions remain.

It was difficult and at times frustrating and tiresome to read, so I took a long break from reading when I finished reading the introduction and the first few books. Only many months later, when I arrived in Nepal, I finished the rest of the book. In fact the book isn’t long at all, I read the English translation published in the Oxford University Press World Classics series which is only 82 pages and the introduction is 27 pages. Yet reading still takes a lot of time because it’s not easy to understand. I’m very glad to have read this work of literature because it offered me more insight into Eastern philosophy.

The Prince by Machiavelli, the previous book I read, is far more accessible by contrast. Of course my understanding of the work is not aided by the fact that I’m a Westerner and probably do not have as much understanding of the ancient Chinese culture as the average well educated Chinese person. I’m quite sure though that a Chinese reader would have less difficulty understanding The Prince than I have to understand The Analects.

The reason for this is that Machiavelli was a master of rethoric, and that The Analects is a loose collection of sayings by Master Kong and a description of his life written by his disciples. They did not manage to produce a coherent, consistent work. This can be noticed in the explanatory notes of my edition, in which the translator comments in more than just a few instances that a passage doesn’t make sense, doesn’t have a connection to the rest of the chapter or that there is no consensus about the meaning of certain passages. It would have been a much better work if Master Kong had decided to write it by himself instead of his disciples doing the work.

The humanism as propagated by Master Kong can be noticed in book 12, chapter 2 and later in 15.24, which celebrate the ethic of reciprocity. However, these are contradicted by the importance ascribed to family relations by Master Kong which can apparently overrule his ethic of reciprocity. See 13.18 for example, where Master Kong judges a son who bore witness against his father who had stolen a sheep to be not upright. He says that fathers and sons who are upright cover up for each other. Another example of contradiction is the mysogynism in 17.23. Of course you shouldn’t expect a person who lived in China during the 6th and 5th century BCE to have a positive attitude about the rights of women, but if you are so enlightened and wise as Master Kong I expect differently. For example, John Stuart Mill, the famous 19th century British philosopher, propagated equal rights for women at a time when unequal rights for women in English society were not questioned. While I’m critical of some of Master Kong’s ideas, I definitely admire his propagation of humanism and meritocracy.

While the Maoist revolution in China broke with Confucian values, I wonder to which degree Confucian principles are still adhered to by the current Chinese government and Chinese society at large. Master Kong preferred leadership of an autocrat over a unified Chinese state over other forms of government and condemned in specific the upheaval created by the wars between the various Chinese states at the time. Autocratic leadership is good according to him as long as the ruler shows humaneness (ren) and lets the Way (dao) prevail in his state. I think his ideas can be reconciled with the rule of the current government which works to enhance the standard of life of it’s citizens through more economic growth and such. Yet in the process it also falls short because of it’s disregard for human rights.

The Prince

I should have blogged about this book by Niccolò Machiavelli earlier, because I read it months ago in June during the end of the academic year for the course Leadership. For that course we could choose different leadership theories to analyze for a literature assignment, The Prince was available as a choice because it is seen as the first serious treatise on leadership in Western culture ever. I already possessed the book and it was catching dust on my desk for months because I don’t spend enough time reading books, so the course was a good opportunity to finally read it.

Like the Iliad and the Commentaries on the Gallic War which I discussed previously on this blog, I got the version published in the Oxford World’s Classics series. All three works have English translations which are in the public domain and available for free through Wikisource for example, but I prefer the OWC versions because the introduction, additional information and explanatory notes greatly aid in understanding the work. This is even more the case in The Prince. The work has frequently been misinterpreted to propagate that ‘the ends justify the means’. In fact, Machiavelli never wrote that, he wrote that ‘the ends matter when no other means of establishing a decision exist’, if there is ‘no tribunal to which to appeal’ because he thinks those tribunals rarely exist in political affairs, according to the explanatory note.

In his work Machiavelli gives advice to princes on how to gain, secure and expand their states, utilizing many contemporary and historical examples in the process. While I think Machiavelli is not useful for leadership theory specifically, but very useful for leadership and life in general. Let me give some favorite quotes.

Concerning this, it should be noted that men should be either caressed or wiped out; because they will avenge minor injuries, but cannot do so for grave ones (chapter III).

This made me remember reading about the Battle of the Caudine Forks, of which the Wikipedia article mentions the treatment of Germany after World War I as another good example.

Once evils are recognized ahead of time, they may be easily cured; but if you wait for them to come upon you, the medicine will be to late, because the disease will have become incurable (chapter III).

A beautiful metaphor, as is not uncommon in the work. Note that the introduction also discusses Machiavelli’s mastery over the art of rhetoric extensively. In other words, princes (leaders) need to be visionary, they cannot afford to concern themselves with merely the here and now, but they need to anticipate the future. My interpretation is that life is a game of chess which is best played by looking ahead as many steps as possible.

I consider it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one half of our actions, but that she still leaves the control of the other half, or almost that, to us. I compare her to one of those destructive rivers that, when they become enraged, flood the plains, ruin the trees and buildings, raising the earth from one sport and dropping it onto another. Everyone flees before it; everyone yields to its impetus, unable to oppose it in anyway. But although rivers are like this, it does not mean we cannot take precautions with dikes and dams when the weather is calm, so that when they rise up again either the waters will channeled off or their forces will be neither so damaging nor so out of control.

As one of the articles I read for the course Leadership put it, today we live in an illusion of control. Both Fortuna and you are in control of your life. We can never be free from her grasp, but we can anticipate Fortuna’s caprices as good as possible to influence the outcome.

For the literature assignment of the course Leadership I searched for scientific articles concerning Machiavelli and discovered that Machiavelli is still very relevant in the fields of psychology, management and ethics. In psychology Machiavelli is used for the scale of Machiavellianism to describe the behavior of individuals. If a person agrees more with propositions taken from Machiavelli’s work, the person scores higher on the scale [1]. Machiavelli is condemned by some [2], but there are also those that see it in a more positive light. There is much popular literature aimed at transforming Machiavelli’s lessons to modern business, and the most interesting article I read analyzed that literature. It concluded that most of that literature gave a wrong account of Machiavelli’s work and that not all of Machiavelli’s lessons can be applied to modern business. There also is praise for some of Machiavelli’s more useful advice which that literature fails to communicate [3].

While the subject of The Prince is the principality, Machiavelli’s other work titled the Discourses on Livy covers the republic. I have become very curious about it’s content due to the many references made to it in the introduction of my version of The Prince and scientific articles discussing Machiavelli, so I certainly intend to read this work as well.

References:

  1. Bedell, Katrina et al. “A Historiometric Examination of Machiavellianism and a New Taxonomy of Leadership”. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 12:4 (2006), p. 50-72.
  2. Brown, Michael E. and Linda K. Treviño. “Ethical leadership: A review and future directions”. The Leadership Quarterly 17 (2006), p. 595-616.
  3. Galie, Peter J. and Christopher Bopst. “Machiavelli & Modern Business: Realist Thought in Contemporary Corporate Leadership Manuals”. Journal of Business Ethics 65 (2006), p. 235-250.

The Gallic War

A few weeks ago I finished reading The Gallic War by Julius Caesar, or Commentaries about the Gallic War to be precise. It’s far more easy to read than the other ancient epics I’ve read so far. As an account of a military campaign it’s quite exciting to read, especially when the Romans (or Gauls on several occasions) execute a well thought out tactical plan to deceive and defeat their enemy. This brought back memories about Sun Tzu’s writings in The Art of War, which mentions that all warfare is based on deception. Besides the account of the military campaign, Caesar also describes the geography of Gaul and the culture of the Gauls and Germans. Not surprisingly he writes describes their way of life with disdain, dismissing them as barbarians.

Even though Julius Caesar is without a doubt an excellent general, quite a few mistakes are made during his campaigns either by himself or those under his command. Caesar’s invasions of Britain can be considered pointless, because he doesn’t conquer territory but merely brings it into Rome’s political sphere of influence. After Gaul is pacified, Ambiorix revolts and later Vercingetorix starts a greater revolt. I keep thinking, could the Gallic War have been conducted in a better way, could those revolts have been prevented? You often read about the Romans asking for hostages from subordinated or defeated tribes during the course of the events. Apparantly they don’t have hostages or are not able to use the hostage to exact pressure on the revolters in case of the revolts of Ambiorix and Vercingetorix. Caesar easily pardons his enemies when they surrender, maybe if he had been more cruel to set an example the Gauls wouldn’t have revolted as easily? On the other hand, according to the book Vercingetorix and the other leaders chose to revolt because they would rather be defeated than subordinated to the Romans.

The Iliad

Today I finally finished reading The Iliad. ‘Finally’, because I have a habit of losing interest when I start reading a book, then I’ll put it aside and never finish reading it. It’s not the case that the books I read are boring, to the contrary. It’s just difficult for me to spend less time on other things.

The Iliad is a great work of literature. The book I read (ISBN13: 9780192834058) uses Robert Fitzgerald’s translation. There are many different translations and varying opinions on which is the better, but Fitzgerald wrote a beautiful translation in my opinion. When I read the opening sentence, which is as follows:

Anger now be your song, immortal one
Achilles’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Achaeans loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men – carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

I thought it was some of the most beautiful use of the English language I had read. Soldiers aren’t “killed”, but “darkness veils their eyes”. The writing style of the Iliad, as is to be expected, is a bit different from modern literature. I love how it is written. I noticed especially how frequently similes are used to enhance the ferociousness of the events described in the Iliad. For example:

As ravenous wolves come down on lambs and kids
astray from some flock that in hilly country
splits in two by a shepherd’s negligence,
and quickly wolves bear off the defenceless things,
so when Danaans fell on Trojans, shrieking
flight was all they thought of, not of combat.

The Iliad describes a bloody war with a high number of 241 casualties. Most of the time a ‘kill’ is described in fine details. However, the Iliad is so much more than merely a description of a war. It teaches virtues and vices. Most of all, it takes a fatalistic position that man is bound to destiny. The Gods have a divine plan, and the mortals are the pawns which have to abide by the plan. Already in the beginning of the book it is made clear that it is Troy’s destiny to fall, and that knowledge is also what drives the Greeks to persevere. Achilles knew that if he abandoned the war he would live a long life, and that if he would stay he would receive everlasting glory, but he would also meet his end. Achilles chooses the latter destiny, and his acceptance of that destiny is what makes him the greatest hero of all in my opinion.

I was a bit surprised that the most famous memory of the Trojan War, the Trojan Horse, is not in the book at all. I assume it will be mentioned in the Odyssey, which I’m going to read next. Another surprise was the weak performance of Aeneas. When Achilles attacks in book XX, both he and Aeneas are “far and away” the best fighters of both armies. However, he would have been defeated in his two duels with respectively Diomedes and Achilles had the Gods not rescued him. It’s strange that the Romans claim lineage of such an underperforming hero.