Friday, January 14, 2022

Review: The Sweet Spot Lib/E: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning

The Sweet Spot Lib/E: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for MeaningThe Sweet Spot Lib/E: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning by Paul Bloom

This was a really interesting listen. Bloom discusses the role of suffering in life. His main idea is that suffering has an important role to play in the meaningful life. Along the way, he critiques various forms of hedonism (life is only/primarily about seeking pleasure or happiness). At the same time, he's not arguing for some kind of ascetic life or a life beset with suffering. His point is more that suffering is always, in some way, a part of a meaningful, full life. We can't banish it completely; and we wouldn't really want to if we could. He details various forms of what he calls chosen-suffering: from BDSM to watching scary movies, to mountain climbing and so on. Another part of his argument is in favor of what he calls motivational pluralism. This is the idea that we are motivated by many things: not just one. It's not just pleasure, or just happiness, or just _fill in the blank_. It's all of that and more. We have lots of different goals, ends, values that motivates us. Some of this involve some measure of pain or suffering. Indeed many of our life-projects; life long goals, involve a lot of pain and suffering of some kind. It's part of process. Sometimes we would, if we could, avoid that. But sometimes the grittiness, the hardness, the painfulness of the thing is an integral part of it and we wouldn't choose to remove it.

Bloom shares lots of fascinating anecdotes and relevant psychology findings. There is a lot to learn and think about here -- even if you don't agree with Bloom's conclusions.

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Thursday, January 06, 2022

Review: City Of Bones

City Of Bones (Harry Bosch #8; Harry Bosch Universe, #10)City Of Bones by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Connelly is such a master. Bosch is such an interesting and compelling character; and the supporting cast are well-drawn. It's hard to put his stories down. This book served as part of the basis for Season 1 of Bosch. So I knew the general trajectory of the story, however, there are some significant differences, so that kept the mystery a bit more open.

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Monday, January 03, 2022

Review: Games: Agency as Art

Games: Agency as ArtGames: Agency as Art by C Thi Nguyen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

C. Thi Nguyen’s book, Games: Agency as Art , is getting a lot of attention. The current issue of the Journal of Philosophy of Sport has a symposium discussing it; and there was a session at the IAPS virtual conference this past year (both featured replies by Nguyen).

The attention and acclaim the book is getting is well-deserved.

First, Nguyen is an excellent writer. According to the book flap, he used to be a food writer for the LA Times. The writing is crisp and concise. He is funny and personable; bringing together amusing but relevant and insightful anecdotes and illustrations to help make his points. He doesn’t get bogged down in jargon or minutiae; but is still able to bring rigor and preciseness when appropriate.

Second, Nguyen faces a daunting challenge of balancing several disciplines: philosophy of art, philosophy of sport, game design, and game culture. Few have expertise in all of these fields, but Nguyen does a great job of explaining the relevant theories, ideas, and arguments in ways that allow the relative novice to follow along but without dumbing it down for the relative expert.

Lastly, Nguyen’s theories are novel and interesting; and they have had an immediate impact on my thinking about the nature of games. I can’t do justice in this brief review (I plan on writing up a long, more tradition book review soon), but the basic idea is that we can better understand games (and many sports as kinds of games) by seeing them as particular kind of art. If we think of art as capturing and stylizing different aspects of human experience: literature as capturing our narratives; music as recording our experience of sounds; dance as recording and stylizing our experience of human movement, etc., then we might approach games as recording and stylizing our practical agency. Within games of all kinds, we take on a temporary agency and play it out. We play with this agency through playing the game. This is comparable to how we might read Harry Potter and experience the world of wizardry. Playing Jedi: Fallen Order, though, allows to experience (at least in a stylized way) what it’s like to think and choose like a Jedi. The game allows us take on the practical reasoning and thought processes of the kind of character or agency that is created by the game structure. As part of taking on this agency, we get temporary goals and values that we pursue in the context of the game, allowing us to experience the striving and achieving of these goals.

This, argues Nguyen, gives us a better understanding of what games are and also what is so valuable and important about game-playing: both personally and also socially. He also discusses how there are some dangers to this – though I thought this is where the book was weakest (I'll get into this more in my longer review).

I learned a lot from this book. Nguyen’s ideas call for much more study (I‘ve already adjusted my philosophy of sport syllabus to include some of his work), and I am sure they will continue to influence my thinking. And his work will push the field forward his ideas are digested, criticized, and revised.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Review: Black Sun

Black Sun (Between Earth and Sky, #1)Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Roanhorse introduces us to a whole new fantasy world in this first book of her new trilogy. As she did in Trail of Lightning with Navajo and Native American culture, Roanhorse takes inspiration from Mesoamerican cultural myths and stories and she recombines and reimagines them to weave together a new fantastical world where gods and magic are real and dangerous.

I think Trail of Lightning was better and more interesting, but Black Sun is quite good. It takes much longer to get a feel for, both in terms of the story and the character. But as the plot and the characters converge, it gets better and better. Though a bit plodding and predictable at first, the world Roanhorse creates is ultimately new, fresh, and fascinating.

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Thursday, December 23, 2021

Review: Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World

Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our WorldRule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World by Michele Gelfand
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The central theme of this book is that there is a continuum of loose norm and tight norm cultures. The looser the culture, the less strict the norms for behavior are. There are many more permissible ways to act in that culture, with fewer punishments for non-compliance. The tighter the culture, the stricter the norms: fewer things that are permissible or acceptable. There are more punishments for not adhering to the expectations and norms of tight cultures. The author looks at how this continuum plays out cross-culturally and also within organizations and other norm-governed groups.

Dr. Gelfand sees this distinction, this continuum as explaining many social conflicts. Everything from conflicts between nation-states, between different groups within cultures, between spouses and families, between parenting styles, and between corporate cultures in mergers. She tracks the correlations between loosen and tightness and many other measures: including happiness, well-being, economic success, governing stabilities, etc. She finds that cultures that are more balanced between tightness and looseness (the goldilocks principle) tend to do better on all these measures. Veer too tightly or too loosely and things tend to trend worse for that culture.

Gelfand argues that the cause of norms tightening up is from a perception of danger. Cultures that tend to be tighter experience more threats: internally or externally. These might be from other people (e.g. threats of invasions) or natural (e.g. regular earthquakes or severe weather events). She sees this at work in industry as well: industries with tighter norms, more compliance and regulations, are ones where there is greater potential for danger and harm. A looseness about mistakes and compliance at a nuclear power plant is dangerous. And those industries that are seen as loose (think Silicon Valley) are ones where mistakes aren’t going to lead to death and widespread harm. Gelfand argues that in the presence of a threat, cultures of all kinds tighten up and when that threat fades, there is a loosening. (This helps to make sense of the way many otherwise liberal (loose) societies, like New Zealand or California, imposed very tight restrictions during Covid).

There is a lot to be learned by using the tight/loose framework to make sense of many things. However, I think Gelfand over does it; it is too all encompassing: she sees tightness and looseness under ever rock and around every corner. It is presented as explaining everything about cultures. I don’t think she actually thinks that, but as you go through the book, that is definitely the impression one can walk away from. There is not enough discussion of alternative theories that might explain things better but also the places where the thesis doesn’t seem to work that well. There are several “exceptions” to her thesis connecting threats to tightness: Israel, the Netherlands, California, etc. These are cultures that tend to be much looser than the thesis would suggest, given the threats they regularly face. Gelfand does discuss these and how they are exceptions, her main response is that these are also diverse cultures and that mitigates against the tightening one would normally expect. That is interesting, but ultimately, I found it a bit too quick.

I think Gelfand’s thesis is interesting and worth thinking about. I think it can be very useful for understanding how norms in cultures are working. But I also think it is just part of the story. I’ve no doubt that Gelfand understands that and agrees, but the book tends a bit too much towards presenting the thesis as THE explanation and that undermined its persuasiveness.

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Monday, December 06, 2021

Review: The Long Fall

The Long FallThe Long Fall by Walter Mosley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book starts off Mosley's new detective series (new-ish; this is from 2010). Leonid McGill fits into the classic Hammett/Chandler model. A hero with questionable conventional norms--willing to do things and live partially on the edges of society. Yet, with a strong internal moral code. There is only so far he'll go and there is a price he is not willing to accept for his integrity. McGill, though, is in the process of transforming himself; redeeming himself from a past where his personal code was weaker and he was more willing to do whatever came his way. Predictably, his past won't let go so easily. Unlike many such protagonists in this genre, McGill has a family which adds a different element to the demands on him. McGill does have a side kick who is further outside of the context of social norms but respects and protects McGill. The influence of Parker's Hawk is a clearly evident here.

While the plot threads and characters were hard to track at times, the thrust of the story works well and comes together at the end. The characters are compelling and avoid stereotypes and conventional tropes. Mosley is deservedly one of the masters of this genre.

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Friday, December 03, 2021

Review: Think like a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Today’s World

Think like a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Today’s WorldThink like a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Today’s World by Massimo Pigliucci,
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m familiar with some of Massimo Pigliucci’s work, so I had very high expectations for this course. (I worked with him in preparing a symposium on Stoicism for Reason Papers.)

While the course is interesting and well-presented, it didn’t live up to those (probably unfairly) high expectations. Pigliucci does a good job of introducing the newcomer to Stoicism: its history, its essential ideas, and its main figures. He also mixes in plenty of advice on how to apply these ideas to one’s life today. I would have liked a bit more of a deeper dive into the philosophy and less on the practical application. Not that the latter shouldn’t have been included, far from it, but the mix was heavier on that than I was hoping for. The practical applications are essential, if only because Stoicism was meant as a practical philosophy.

I would definitely recommend this for those interested in learning about Stoicism and how it could apply to their lives. If you are already familiar with stoicism and are looking for something that goes a bit further into it; this probably is not the right course for you.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Review: Sacred Clowns: A Leaphorn and Chee Novel

Sacred Clowns: A Leaphorn and Chee NovelSacred Clowns: A Leaphorn and Chee Novel by Tony Hillerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoy Hillerman's Leaphorn and Chee mysteries; his depictions of life in the Navajo Nation are so compelling. The underlying theme of many of his novels are the challenges facing the traditional ways of life and adaptation to the modern ways of life; and the conflicts that ensue from that. Sacred Clowns underlines this more so than others. This is through the characters of Leaphorn and Chee, as well as secondary characters. But the mysteries they are trying solve present this theme as well. The pacing was a bit meandering at first, but gets going as the pieces start to come together.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Review: Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America

Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black AmericaWoke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America by John McWhorter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

John McWhorter’s lastest book, Woke Racism, diagnoses and dissects an ideology that has, of late, reached a crescendo. Call it woke-ism, antiracism, CRT, cancel culture, or as McWhorter cleverly refers to KenDiAngelonism. It is an ideology that has come out from esoteric academic departments to take front and center in local and national debates. Understanding it is important. Countering it is a necessity, if, that is, we wish to live in a free, liberal, and diverse world.

McWhorter’s basic argument is first, we have to understand that this ideology is a religion, and second, its credo, while purporting to be antiracist, is actually destructive of progress on race. In particular, it rests on beliefs that are ultimately demeaning and belittling of black people. And because its adherents, The Elect as he calls them, regard themselves as possessors of The Truth, this ideology is undermining free thought and rational discussion.

The first part of the book lays out his argument for why and how this is a religious movement. The second part of the book explains how The Elect’s dogmas are harmful: to black people, to social discourse, and to real progress. The last part of the book offers some advice. First, on how to actually make progress on race. Second, on how to work around woke-ism.

For those familiar with McWhorter’s public intellectual work, there is not much new in the first or second parts of the book. It is still written in McWhorter’s pithy and approachable style and so worth a read in any case. The last part of the book might be more novel for most readers. McWhorter presents a three-point plan for improving things for Black America. He argues that these three things, while not bringing about utopia, will dramatically improve life for Black Americans (and all Americans). First, end the war on drugs. Second, use phonics to teach kids to read. And lastly, get past the idea that everyone has to get a university diploma, and create and value more vocational-type education programs. He keeps it to three points and these points because, as he argues, these are political feasible and also would have the deepest and widest impact.

In the last chapter, “How Do We Work Around Them?” McWhorter offers some advice on how to deal with this Great Awakening of Woke-ism. First and foremost, McWhorter explains “there is no discussion to be had” (157). What he means is that a person who has committed themselves to this viewpoint is not open to a constructive and rational discussion; any more than a practicing Roman Catholic is open to a discussion about the existence of God. This is a key idea because getting drawn into what you think is an open-ended conversation governed by evidence and logic, when it is not that at all, can get messy and leave the well-meaning discussant chastised and accused of racism. This connects to another point he makes. You will be called a racist (or if Black, self-hating) for not accepting this woke dogma. He counsels that we ought to trust own judgment and rationality, to know that we are not racist or a white supremacist. The Elect may call you all kinds of names, but one doesn’t have to accept these epithets. And the refusal to do so helps stem the tide. He then ends with several examples of people who stood up and survived; those that refused to accept the label of racism or go along with the woke mob and weren’t cancel or hounded out of a job.

If there is a weakness to the book it is that it isn’t really a critique of any particular thinkers’ work. While he discusses at points the ideas of Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, and other ‘prophets of the elect’, McWhorter doesn’t engage them directly. But I think this is on purpose. First, that’s a different book. McWhorter is writing about a general ideological trend. Focusing on any one thinker makes it just about them. Second, McWhorter is explicit that a direct engagement with such thinkers is pointless. They are not open to a constructive dialogue.

This book is for anyone concerned about the state of American culture. It is not a left-right book; it is a call to reason, to logic, to evidence, to common sense, and to decency.

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Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Review: Intellectuals and Society

Intellectuals and SocietyIntellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was disappointed by this book. It does have some very interesting analyses; and there is much that Sowell explains and discusses here that is important. But more than anything, this seemed like an airing of grievances against intellectuals. Sowell has many gripes with intellectuals. Many of these (though not all) I agree with and think Sowell provides sufficient grounding for these. Yet, there is probably too much overgeneralizing and oversimplifying. And I think there are several points that Sowell is not being fair or charitable to those who he is criticizing as well.

Sowell’s general point is that intellectuals have had a far too great influence on society and often that influence has been harmful to society. He defines intellectuals as those whose careers are primarily about working with ideas. There has been a tendency, as Sowell describes it, for such people to see themselves as what he calls the ‘anointed.” The anointed see themselves, because of their intellectual work, as having special or higher knowledge, and that this endows them with superior insight on how to run society. But, because of many of the features Sowell elucidates, they end up making a mess of things (or would if more had listened).

Two of the most impactful features he highlights are the lack of accountability and the presumption of general knowledge from specialized fields. That is, because they work with ideas (but not the real-world consequences), intellectuals rarely are held accountable for the impact of the ideas. And though intellectuals often are experts in specialized academic disciplines, they feel empowered to speak out more generally on general issues about which they are about as knowledge as anyone else (meaning about as ignorant). Sowell also argues that intellectuals engage in and are enamored by what he calls “verbal virtuosity.” Using clever turns of phrases, intellectuals are often able to avoid argument or engagement with opposing ideas.

Sowell runs through various areas where intellectuals have an impact: law, war, education, the media, etc. After a while, it gets a bit repetitive. The book could have been a third the size and been much stronger for it. Or it might have been two or three different books. Some parts where far more interesting than others. The sections on the intellectuals influence on war was the most engaging. Sowell lays out, in fairly convincing ways, how the intellectuals’ arguments for pacifism and disarmament lead time and time again to war.

There are certainly much better works by Sowell to read than this. There is some good stuff here, but I get the sense that much of the good is recycled from his earlier works.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Review: Shadow Fall (Star Wars): An Alphabet Squadron Novel

Shadow Fall (Star Wars): An Alphabet Squadron NovelShadow Fall (Star Wars): An Alphabet Squadron Novel by Alexander Freed
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Overall, this is an interesting series. But I also find the writing style a bit too intricate and dense at times. I find it very hard to get into the novels; it takes me about half way before I really start to feel invested. Partly, Freed spends too much on battle maneuvers and the like; I wonder if that's part of the block for me. The characters are interesting, though I also don't feel all that connected to them. I'm not sure I really like any of the main characters all that much (Here Syndulla being an exception of course)

That said, there is something compelling about these books. The overall arc is intriguing: where are these characters going -- individually and collectively? The exploration of the costs of war, the complex ways it impacts each of the characters, is when the book is at its best. I look forward to reading the finale of the trilogy.

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Saturday, October 23, 2021

Review: Sports Justice: The Law & the Business of Sports

Sports Justice: The Law & the Business of SportsSports Justice: The Law & the Business of Sports by Roger I. Abrams
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book was very disappointing; it ended up not being what I was expecting based on the description. I was hoping for rigorous analysis of important legal cases related to sport. I was expecting examinations of relevant legal principles that bear on sport.

But that's not what Abrams does. Each chapter looks at an issue of sport that found its way into court. It has plenty of exposition about the key players, but then only a cursory or elementary presentation of the case and how it was decided. Little is done to dive deep into the legal question and issues, and even less attention given to an objective presentation of the positions or points of view involve. Where the author disagreed with a viewpoint, it was quite often dismissed and caricatured.

I very rarely give up on a book. But there are times when you realize there are too many other good books to read and its pointless to waste one's precious time on a book from which there is little to learn.

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Monday, October 04, 2021

Review: Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters

Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It MattersUnsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters by Steven E. Koonin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An important book, even if you (especially if you) disagree with Koonin. Koonin is presenting a moderate, sober accounting of the scientific work informing our understanding of climate. He is eschews the extremes of either the science is settled and the world is facing a dangerous and immediate crisis, on one hand, or the notion that climate change is all some elaborate hoax or conspiracy on the other. Koonin is very clear that the best evidence shows that the climate is warming and that there is some human influence on this warming. But through in-depth study of the climate assessment reports and the research underlying those reports, Koonin argues that this is not a crisis, this is not a precipice from which we are about to tumble. There is much we need do not know or understand. How much of the warming is human caused and how much is from natural processes? How much can be reversed irrespective of the cause? How much warming is there? What are the outcomes/consequences of a warming globe? Are they are all negative and deadly? There are polices and actions we can and should take to mitigate the worse outcomes, but the alarmism and fear-mongering that surrounds so much public discourse around climate is, he argues, unwarranted and itself dangerous. The main causality is science itself. By turning more towards persuasion rather than towards knowledge, confidence in science has been undermined and its value undermined. (Something we can see playing out in dangerous ways in Covid responses from many sides of the political spectrum).

Koonin goes through what he takes to be the best description of what scientific findings support about what we know about the climate and what is involved in causing/influencing the changes we observe. He challenges some of the ways in which climate science is done (in particular climate modelling--and given his back ground in computational physics he's well positioned to discuss the pros and cons here).

Then he turns to how this has been misrepresented. He goes through the many ways the media, politicians, and others have misreported the climate assessment reports and scientific findings in the literature. The summaries and reporting of what is in the assessment reports are, as he shows, often misrepresented and sometimes even contradictory. All the nuance, qualifications, and hedges that are in the scientific reports gets lost when turned into headlines. The worse case scenarios, which are deemed in these reports as unlikely are sometimes presented to the public as THE outcomes by THE science.

Koonin then turns to ways to repair or deal with the broken science reporting, as well as various things we might be able to do to deal with a warming planet.

All in all, I found Koonin trying to do an honest job of reporting what he has discovered through his research and work on climate science. (He's a theoretical physicist, and was Undersecretary for Science in the Department of Energy for the Obama administration.) He seemed genuinely motivated by a concern for truth and the climate. He's stance seems reasonable and moderate. He invites you to disagree with him and discusses various criticisms of his claim. He might be wrong on any number of accounts, but his main overall point is that there is no such thing as THE Science, there is science, which is unending, dynamic and complex process of working towards a better understanding of the world we live in. There is much we need to learn about the workings of the climate and how to respond and adapt to the inevitable changes. And only taking the scientific process seriously as a descriptive enterprise can we learn those things.

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Review: A Darkness More Than Night

A Darkness More Than Night (Harry Bosch, #7; Terry McCaleb, #2; Harry Bosch Universe, #9)A Darkness More Than Night by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An interesting twist in that Connelly uses the point of view of McCaleb for good chunks of the book. This is important for how the plot plays out, as Bosch is the focus of McCaleb's investigation. This book was adapted for season three of the tv show, though McCaleb is not in the show. Instead, the plot is woven in with the cast of the show as is.

This book really highlights the balance that Bosch maintains. He's a hard-boiled character, he fits right in with Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe: he's got a strict moral code, a strict sense of justice and righteousness, though not one that aligns with the conventional mainstream. Some of what he does, demanded by his code, runs against that conventional sense of justice and rightness. Moreover, his code is tested by the abyss, by the darkness that Bosch battles against. We see this test, this balance throughout this book (and the series).

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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Review: Beautiful City: The Dialectical Character Of Plato's "Republic"

Beautiful City: The Dialectical Character Of Plato's Beautiful City: The Dialectical Character Of Plato's "Republic" by David Roochnik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the best books about ancient philosophy I have ever read. First, Roochnik is a clear writer and this work is eminently readable for an academic book. Second, his explanation of the structure and flow of the Republic is rich, deep, and fascinating. I’ve learned so much about the Republicthrough his book. He makes sense (or helps to make some sense) of many of the pickles I’ve discussed with my students (and friends) over the years about the arguments and theories in the Republic.

There are two main, general take-aways from Roochnik’s book. First, the Republicmust be read as an entirety. It is not a linear philosophical treatise in which we can move step by step through deductive arguments. We cannot isolate sections of it to focus only on that part of the argument. The parts and individual moments make the most sense when understood as part of the whole of the work.

Second, the recurring themes of the arithmetic and the erotic are central to understanding the interplay of the arguments and stories in the Republic. Roochnik shows how Plato moves through the dialectic of introducing the first arguments about the city and the soul, and the necessary city, in largely arithmetic terms but gets challenged by the Eros that Glaucon insists upon. This is revised and rebuilt mixing math and desire together—but this introduces new problems. This leads to new arithmetic means of explaining and dealing with these issues; only to be thwarted again by Eros. And so on, again and again. This interlay – dialogue if you will—is at the heart of understanding the movement through the dialogue.

I ask my students to consider what the purpose or ultimate point of the Republicis. Is it political; meant to defend a particular sort of regime? Is it primarily ethical; meant to defend the just life against the Thrasymachean claims of immoralism? Is it meant as a warning about democracy or as a qualified defense of democracy? Roochnik suggests, in my interpretation of his arguments, something a bit different: it is meant to present a picture of the human soul in action. The medium of the dialogue, the use of math and desire (philosophy and poetry), portray the complexity of human psychology, understanding, and engagement with the world.

I think this explains largely why the Republichas for so long and continues to be so central to philosophy. Why reads Plato 25 centuries later? Because it is so rich and deep, and has so much to tell us about ourselves. And Roochnik helps to show why this is so. His book breathes new life into discussions and to see the dialogue in a new, and clearer, light.

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