Until now, my coverage of Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden has been on a chapter to chapter basis presented in the “Read Along” section of the blog. As mentioned in my last post, I will be scrapping this in favor of exclusive reviews on selective books I wish to discuss, henceforth. So, without further delay, let’s bring the curtains down on The Dragons of Eden.
The premise of the book is clearly stated in the subtitle: “Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence.” Sagan wishes to explore the various facets of human intelligence by calling to motion a simple question: why are humans, humans? He attempts to investigate, in what has been a shared effort by the academic community, a conclusive answer to this question from a purely scientific viewpoint while entertaining “occasional excursions into myths, ancient and modern.” The title of the book supports Sagan’s approach in a compilation of ideas on the “unexpected aptness” of various different myths when compared to scientific theories.
Beginning with time immemorial at the Big Bang, we ride the waves of time flowing toward the current epoch of human civilization. Human evolution is often described in the form of a metaphor, an “abstraction of beasts,” as Sagan uses various comparative arguments to build the foundation of his work in the earlier chapters, particularly in Chapter 2 – Genes and Brains (which I provided a full summary of in the Read Along), before settling into the pivotal point of his work which focuses on the evolution of human intelligence in the subsequent chapters describing the characteristics of the human brain and its evolutionary growth.
Following the footsteps of his predecessor in Jacob Bronowski, whose work in The Ascent of Man is an account of how human beings and human brains evolved, Sagan has presented his own unique approach to the same subject in his book. While we don’t necessarily discover an absolute answer on the origin of human intelligence, Sagan’s book is nevertheless an exhilarating journey that offers his insight into the brains of man and beast, the plethora of recent discoveries in science supporting the theory of human evolution, and most interestingly how they serve to be the function of our most familiar myths, and legends.
Sagan’s work doesn’t end there. His arguments and words serve as microphone toward the need for intellectual rigor, and a rejection of the absent skepticism prevalent in modern-day society. Altogether, The Dragons of Eden is an excellent book that talks about all kinds of things, from the reasons for sleeping and dreaming to the definition of death in what is a fascinating and delightfully short compendium of knowledge that should be read by everyone alike. Sagan was an influential science communicator (one of my favorites), if not one of the best; his works are well worth the effort of reading for anyone interested with or without a scientific background.
Luc Ferry’s A Brief History of Thought recently caught my eye as I wandered through the library. The book promised a brief summary of human thought and its evolution across significant historical epochs within a meager volume of pages. Who wouldn’t wish to entertain such a prospect?
The book’s strength is in Ferry’s ability to summarize various complicated worldviews with such simplicity, and conciseness. While I can’t call upon an extensive knowledge of philosophy to critique Ferry’s work, I certainly identified my share of agreements and disagreements with the opinions and perspectives proposed in the book. In this review, I will summarize Ferry’s claims and arguments, which while insightful and highly educational, personally, fell short of convincing by the final pages.
Ferry begins by addressing the question at the heart of human existence, a quest for salvation (an answer to the mystery that is death), which he identifies to be the vital aspect of every philosophical system. Characterizing philosophy as more than an act of reasoning and logic, Ferry asserts that philosophy is also a measure of human thought that “claims to save us – if not from death itself, then from the anxiety it causes, and to do so by the exercise of our own resources and our innate faculty of reason.”
From there on, Ferry uses this argument as a guide to expound his views and perspectives on the various philosophical movements that have spanned the history of human thought: Stoicism, Christianity, Humanism, Postmodernism (Nietzsche), and Contemporary philosophy (post-Nietzsche). The book flows smoothly from one time period to another while providing an effective summary of the relevant aspects of each philosophical movement. By the end of each chapter, the reader is able to identify the questions and answers that serve as the foundation for the consecutive movement.
We are first acquainted with the Greeks and their establishment of Stoicism, the representation of the world as a perfect cosmos, an ordered logos where transcendence and immanence are united; a cause that the human strives to be a reflection of.
The impersonal approach towards death and salvation in Stoicism is rectified by Christianity where the human is the focal point of the argument. Unlike in Stoic reflections, salvation is personalized through the evocative belief in a Son of God, a motion towards “love in God,” promising fulfillment and an immortality where we maintain our personal identities.
The foundations upon which both Stoicism and Christianity rested soon come crashing down with the advent of science. Modern physics reveals “an infinite chaos devoid of sense; a field of forces and objects jostling for place without harmony.”
Thus, mankind is once again alone in a cosmos void of a logos or god of any kind. Reality is marked by chaos. The Stoic measure for study or contemplation and the Christian revelation fall flat against the ensuing chaos.
The human is once again the focal point of the argument, but this time, “it was going to require man himself…to introduce some order into a universe which seemed no longer to offer any of its own.” Man’s ability to devise a personal history distinguishes him from his animal brethren resulting in a Humanism that takes the reigns in a movement where humans forge the history of the world through the ideals and laws we invent to judge our actions and their consequences. Nevertheless, humanism stumbles in offering a solution to our quest for salvation, leading to a well-defined struggle that lasts to this day between the various pantheons of human thought.
The cycle doesn’t end here as we alight upon the arrival of Nietzsche and Postmodernism. Nietzsche dismissed both science and religion. His critical deconstruction of the conventional philosophies of the time focused on their inseparable similarity that adhered to a disregarding of the essence of life, and instead building metaphysical constructs/ideals to allow the human to find “salvation” or a purpose.
All of which Nietzsche believed was nothing more than a lie, a negation of life from what it essentially is by supplanting it with transcendental ideas of god, and the ideal human being. Nietzsche’s nihilism would fuel his famous ideas for the “will to power,” an attempt for control in a deconstructed universe by the self physically, emotionally, and also morally.
Ferry concludes his work by providing an assessment of modern day Contemporary philosophy in the wake of the revolutionary movements summarized above. This concerns a world where there is no longer a universal meaning towards human existence, but rather an incessant and a seemingly directionless promotion of progress for the sake of progress, a morose form of materialism.
In conclusion, Ferry provides a wonderful and enlightening primer on the various philosophical attitudes that span the history of human thought. I would certainly recommend this book for any philosophy enthusiast. The reader gets a taste of the major aspects of Western philosophy over the vast vista of time. Nevertheless, the fact that the book is a philosophical overview for a mass audience makes it a tough prospect in accurately capturing the more subtle facets of the various philosophies discussed. While this can be seen as a weakness, it is also a strength, as it will drive the interested reader to learn more about the topics involved (it did for me). Though Ferry himself stumbles in deriving a clear answer to the human quest for “salvation,” his work succeeds in emphasizing the significance of said journey in that it is defining of our very humanity, and individual spirit. In that vein, A Brief History of Thought is a wonderful journey in itself.
It took me about a month, but I finally finished reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, completing my journey through a dystopian future set in London in the year 2540 A.D.
‘The greater a man’s talents, the greater his power to lead astray’
This quote sets the tone for Huxley’s novel, written in 1931, and published a year later in 1932. In the context of the history of the 20th century, the novel served as a unique, and menacing vision of the future during the interwar period between the end of the First World War (1914-1918), and the beginning of the Second World War (1939-1945).
Through his skillful prose, Huxley provides a prescient view of a future where he anticipates the development of various scientific ideas such as reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation, and classical conditioning. Human lives are controlled by a variety of forces including genetic engineering, indoctrination, and drugs. In fact, the concept of the individual is mired, and ultimately lost in the foundation of an “ideal” society where “everyone belongs to everyone else.”
Spontaneous human desires, and emotions are nullified by the anesthetizing public mantras, the messengers of the societal indoctrination that pervades Huxley’s world, but it doesn’t matter as “everybody’s happy nowadays.” The reader is provided entry into this bleak, but brave new world, through the daily lives, and attitudes of the major characters in the novel. Through their eyes, the reader is able to identify his/her critical opinions of a biased world where skepticism is in itself a crime, feared as an unnatural, and tainting element of the supposed balance expressed in the societal hierarchy.
Throughout the novel, Huxley borrows heavily from the works of his predecessors. In particular, he draws inspiration from much of Shakespeare’s works, providing several quotations from The Tempest, Troilus and Cressida, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth to name a few. The title of the novel is in fact from Miranda’s speech in The Tempest,
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.”
– William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I, ll.
While Huxley himself speaks of his work’s inspiration from the utopian novels of H.G. Wells, including A Modern Utopia (1905) and Men Like Gods (1923), he disavows Wells’ hopeful vision of the future in place of the darker presentation he provides in his novel. Huxley’s novel also serves as a counterpart to the George Orwell’s 1984. The two novels differentiate themselves in the prescient views they prescribe to the future. While Orwell’s fears are borne of a world that rejects knowledge, Huxley’s fears are beset upon a world that finds knowledge redundant, or rather irrelevant.
In conclusion, I believe Huxley feared the loss of the complexities that make human culture unique in exchange for triviality. He expresses this fears through the cyclical, and largely indifferent activities that his characters engage in their daily lives. By reading the book, and finding the various allusions it provides to modern-day society, I was left exhilarated at the daunting responsibility for the future that the current generation faces amidst a rapidly changing world. The triviality that Huxley frequently alludes to in his work is evident in today’s society, dominated by social media, leaving us blind to an extent, and in much need of a reassessment of what may constitute the necessary discussions, decisions, and actions we must partake in, for the greater security of our world, and the human species as a whole.
While Huxley may have realized his vision of such a brave new world several years ago, his work remains today as a warning, and as a reminder of the social responsibility every individual shares in the maintenance, and regulation of the world we live in.
I was 12 years old when I first got my hands on The Hobbit, while absent-mindedly exploring my school library’s fantasy collection, and that was about it. In the years that followed, I watched various animated and live-action film adaptations of Tolkien’s works, but ultimately didn’t commit to fully reading The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy. In retrospect, I could attribute this to my inability then, to fully appreciate the depth and grandeur of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.
It wasn’t until the final year of my undergraduate studies, when I met my partner Leina, who was herself an avid fan of Tolkien, that my interests in the events and rich history of Middle-Earth were renewed. I ended up re-watching Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the LOTR trilogy, and later indulged heavily on the online forums and wikis dedicated to Tolkien’s mythology, digesting pretty much all that there was to learn about Middle-Earth. But reading wikis and online forums is a completely different matter from actually reading the books.
And so, I purchased The Silmarillion, eventually completing what was an adventurous ride through Eä over the course of the last three months.
The Silmarillion is a collection of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythopoeic works that were edited and published posthumously by his son Christopher Tolkien in 1977. Itis a narrative describing the universe of Eä where exist the mythical lands of Valinor, Beleriand, Numénor, and lastly, Middle-Earth, which serves as the backdrop for the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
The narrative is incomplete, ranging over prominent events and happenings in the Elder Days (the First Age in Tolkien’s world) comprising Eä’s creation to the downfall of Morgoth (the prime antagonist of the First Age), much of which would be forgotten in the coming of the Second and Third Ages detailing the rise and fall of Sauron, Morgoth’s lieutenant.
While the tales of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings chiefly concern the events surrounding Sauron’s One Ring of power, the foundation of The Silmarillion revolves about the Silmarils, three jewels that were created by Feänor, the most gifted among the Elves. Within those jewels were stored the light of the Two Trees of Valinor, the land of the Valar (higher spirits who are the guardians and governors of Arda, or the Earth) before they were destroyed by Morgoth.
Thereafter, the light of the trees of Valinor forever lived only in the Silmarils. Unfortunately, Morgoth would seize those jewels and flee to his fortress Angband in the North of Middle-Earth, where he would set them in his crown. Thus, the story of The Silmarillion is the long history of the rebellion that followed in the wake of Morgoth’s theft of the jewels, led by Feänor and his elven kindred against the Valar, their subsequent exile from Valinor, their return to Middle-Earth, and their war until the end of the First Age against their most bitter foe, the Black Enemy, Morgoth.
The Silmarillion consists of several overlapping themes highlighted in the individual stories of the various characters who live through the First Age of Middle-Earth. Tolkien’s creation myth draws heavy similarities with the Biblical creation story, where Eru can be held analogous to Yahweh. One could also compare the Valar to various Greco/Roman/Hindu Gods, and the Maiar (the servants of the Valar) to Christian angelic figures.
Several such open inferences and interpretations of the characters in the story make for an extremely enjoyable read. In my case, it certainly motivated me to explore and learn the details and history of other major religious pantheons that have held power in human history, several of which may also have duly served as inspiration for Tolkien in his writing.
The penultimate theme of the story is the cosmic struggle between good and evil, order and chaos, mirrored in the actions of its characters. The passing of time and the inevitable hand of fate serve as recurring imagery of the circular nature of Tolkien’s world. Even the most subtle decisions made as a result of a character’s emotions, be it pride, vanity, confidence, or grief, result in far-reaching consequences, the ends of which we see resolved in later events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. While each character is subject to his emotions, those same primal instincts are often presented as the will of a higher being.
As such, an individual’s actions and the dire set of resulting circumstances often provoke the reader to question the morality of Tolkien’s world and its hierarchy. Questions on existentialism and freewill follow hand-in-hand when the reader is left to reflect on the motives and fate of several characters, many of whose lives are quite Sisyphean in nature.
At the same time, Tolkien also explicitly uses specific characters to fully symbolize prominent themes such as love and hope to counteract the grave world we find in The Silmarillion.
Altogether, the book is a wonderful read, and is a must for LOTR fans. In this brief book review, I have specifically gone to great lengths to not divulge details on the individual characters and myriad stories we find in The Silmarillion. The discontinuous nature of these stories define a fundamental element of the First Age of Middle-Earth which resembles a broken world. I highly encourage both LOTR and non-LOTR fans to give the book a read. As for me, having read The Silmarillion, it is only proper that I now follow through and read the LOTR trilogy, for another collective three book reviews waiting in the future!
Peace is a lie, there is only passion. Through passion, I gain strength. Through strength, I gain power. Through power, I gain victory. Through victory, my chains are broken. The Force shall free me.
-The Sith Code
There is no emotion, there is peace. There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.There is no passion, there is serenity.There is no chaos, there is harmony.There is no death, there is the Force.
–The Jedi Code
Revan’s search for his identity while strung between the polarizing dictates of the Jedi, and the Sith order, is at the crux of the plot of Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan.
“Hero, traitor, conqueror, villain, savior-the man called Revan has been all of these.”
Revan left Coruscant as a Jedi, sent on a mission to defeat the Mandalorians, a warrior race immersed in a great tradition for war, and inhabiting the planet of Mandalore. He would prove to be successful, gaining the mask of Mandalore, a ceremonial war mask worn by the leader of the Mandalorians. The mask would become an enduring symbol of Revan’s power, and conquest. But with his rise, Revan fell, returning instead as a Sith Lord bent on destroying the Republic.
The man behind the mask would find his redemption through the love of a young, and promising Jedi named Bastila Shan,
but paid the price for his crimes with the loss of his memories. Guiding the Republic once again through the ravages of his past actions, Revan would assist the Jedi Order to reassert peace in the galaxy.
“At the start, they were not much of a threat to speak of, but once the Jedi Revan had taken charge, things began to turn against us. The Republic fleets began to use more than just basic tactics. Feints, counterattacks, mass deceptions. Revan was a genius on the field. Revan abandoned worlds of their defenders so that others would be too fortified to strike, and was willing to make sacrifices in order to advance goals. And in the end, Revan proved too much for us.” – Canderous Ordo, a Mandalorian.
Now, an exile of the Jedi order, Revan lives a secretive, but comfortable life with his wife Bastila. Nevertheless, he remains tormented by nightmares that seek his return to the past, foreshadowing a growing threat that bodes its time in the dark. In order to recover his memories, and discover the source of the threat, Revan embarks on a journey that would culminate in his struggle against a powerful, and diabolic enemy. His failure could mean the end of the Republic, “but only death can stop him from” succeeding.
And that’s basically it.
Revan is an excellent book that draws the reader into the world of the Old Republic; a definite recommendation for both Stars Wars, and non-Star Wars fans alike. Though on the outset it may seem to be a story modeled around the journey of Anakin Skywalker, by the end of the book, Revan seals his place as a unique, and powerful character in his own right, within the Star Wars mythology.
What personally drew me to the book, and Revan’s character, was his enduring struggle against a very human desire for power. It is a concept that is at the heart of the central dichotomy of the Jedi, and the Sith, about which several plot lines revolve in the Star Wars universe.
I remember once walking past a blackboard at the university. The board had the message “Peace is …” with an abundance of scrawls, and notes left by other students with their opinions on peace. Their statements were food for thought. I eventually found some empty space at the corner of the board, and felt compelled to write, peace is what power defines. A few months later, I found myself reading Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan. By the end of the book, I felt compelled once again to believe that peace is nothing more than compromised power.
I’m a fan of the Star Wars universe, and thus I couldn’t help myself in finding analogies to the politics of its worlds with the history of humanity. The current generation of youngsters face a world rapid in its growth, and unraveling in the myriad changes of modern-day society. Strife, inequality, ostracism, and tyranny still seem to echo in this hall of democracy, and unity that humanity seems to believe it represents. I’ve never been a fan of politics, yet I do not shun knowledge of its principles, and also understand its contribution to society.
What is peace? It is a difficult question, and a unique answer is nigh impossible. I personally believe peace is a phase, somewhat like a smaller gear, in a larger system that defines society. While it may be revered, and glorified as an ideal of the highest standard, along with justice, and morality, peace is still very much a concept that adheres to the beliefs, and feelings of an individual as it would as a social contract to a greater populace.
In the Star Wars mythology, the Jedi Council, and the Sith seem to be two sides of the same coin, vying for power, though the Jedi distinguish themselves in their motivation towards peace, and harmony. While the Sith are open in their passion for power, the Jedi stand their ground as their counterpart, proclaiming themselves as protectors of the Republic. Revan, having been a hero of the Jedi, and a dark lord of the Sith, illustrates the illusions surrounding the motivations of both “cults.”
“Is that what he was? Or was he always true to himself, no matter what personality he wore? And there is something that the Council may never understand. That perhaps Revan never fell. The difference between a fall and a sacrifice is sometimes difficult, but I feel that Revan understood that difference, more than anyone knew. The galaxy would have fallen if Revan had not gone to war. Perhaps he became the dark lord out of necessity, to prevent a greater evil.” – Sith Lord Kreia
As time passes, the Jedi grow stronger, unified in their purpose, while the Sith dwindle, succumbing to their lust for power that results in inner strife, and ultimately their demise. But after a millenia, the roles are reversed, and the Jedi are overthrown by the Sith. Having reached the status as peacekeepers of the Republic, the Jedi removed themselves from society, preferring the solace of their temples, and archives. In their rule, we see a shadow of Plato’s vision of a “Republic” ruled by philosophical warriors.
But by throwing away their identity as peace-keepers (or social workers), the Jedi council’s disjunct views clash with societal, and communal paradigms, resulting in peace becoming a tool used to maintain the Republic that is now the foundation of the Jedi council’s political power, and authority. Consequently, the Jedi fall victim to their own vanity. Meanwhile, the Sith’s ability to reassess, manipulate, and even become subservient to the current state of affairs, over generations, helps in their recovery, and victory over the Jedi.
Revan, Anakin Skywalker, and other popular characters of the Star Wars lore symbolize this contest between the two factions, often defined as an eternal conflict towards balance in the force. Taken in the context of the Republic, and its citizens, this could also define the efforts toward a stable government. Revan’s position as an exile, and his dual personality as a Sith Lord, and a Jedi Master, help him succeed when he may be doomed to fail. By the end of the book, Revan doesn’t necessarily find answers to all his questions. Instead, he finds his peace in the hope that the future of his loved ones is safe.
Peace is an ideal, and may never be achieved completely. It is a notion that requires us to address our own failures, individually, and as a species. While its results may be temporary, it is in the hope of such an ideal that our wars are waged, our beliefs are found, and our lives are balanced. In conclusion, peace is a question without an answer. Revan is a metaphor of this truth.
“Who I am is not important, my message is.” – Darth Revan