THE MARRIAGE OF CADMUS AND HARMONY

A stunning journey back to ancient Greece with Italian author Calasso, who, in a first US publication, takes apart the old myths to discover the birth of history and modern thinking amid timeless patterns of behavior. Ranging as widely as one of the peripatetic Olympian gods he describes, Calasso moves effortlessly between the legends and the poets and writers—like Homer, Ovid, and Sophocles—who gave their own spin to the old stories. He begins with the rape of Europa, and ends with the marriage of Cadmus to Harmony. The first story reveals the Olympians under Zeus, already withdrawing from the world, manifesting themselves only in forcible interventions like rape; the last marks the final occasion when the gods and men had ``been on familiar terms; after that remote time, to invite the gods to one's house became the most dangerous thing one could do, a sign of the now irretrievable malaise between heaven and earth.'' As Calasso recounts the classic stories in between these two events, he not only divides the relationship between man and the gods into three stages—the third being the modern one of mutual indifference—but also gives accessible lessons on ancient history, religion, and philosophy. Central to the narrative is the death of Odysseus, which ends the ``long chain of stories that predate history. After Odysseus, our life without heroes begins; stories are no longer exemplary but are repeated and recounted. What happens is mere history.'' Action, the hurly-burly of man encountering gods in extraordinary ways and stranger places, is ended with Cadmus' gift of the alphabet to the Greeks. Henceforth, religion—the gods—``will be experienced in the silence of the mind, no longer in the full and normal presence.'' But the meanings of the myths linger on—a myth, Calasso asserts, ``is the precedent behind every action, its invisible, ever-present lining.'' Here, the past not only comes vibrantly alive but connects to the present in a virtuoso display of scholarship and insight. A remarkable feat.

Pub Date: March 9, 1993

ISBN: 0-394-58154-7

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1993

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

THE ART OF SOLITUDE

A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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