A genius is always a teacher, never a pupil; he is always self-made.
~Ludwig von Mises, “Bureaucracy”
A genius is always a teacher, never a pupil; he is always self-made.
~Ludwig von Mises, “Bureaucracy”
The Dog’s Mind: Understanding Your Dog’s Behavior (buy on Amazon.com)
by Bruce Fogle, DVM, MRCVS, published 1992
A “valueprax” review always serves two purposes: to inform the reader, and to remind the writer. Find more reviews by visiting the Virtual Library.
Peering into the canine mind
If you’ve ever owned a dog, or even just observed one owned by someone else, it seems almost inevitable to ask yourself the question, “What is going on inside that dog’s head right now?”
I grew up with dogs and have fond memories of four different family dogs of different breeds since childhood. But as a child and even a teenager I didn’t spend much time trying to understand the dogs. They were just there, part of the family landscape and in many ways I took them for granted.
Those fond childhood memories influenced my decision almost two years ago to acquire my own dog. This time, my decision was purpose-driven based upon what I understood about dogs and dog breeds, what I hoped for as a lifestyle to be had with my new companion and my own emotional idealism concerning the dog. We ended up buying a pure bred female German Shepherd from a professional breeder who creates showdogs and pets from German working bloodlines. She is a beautiful, intelligent creature to put it mildly.
We spent a considerable amount of time before and after acquiring our puppy studying articles, videos, books and other information at sites like Leerburg.com and others around the web (two other titles which were helpful, amongst many: The Art of Raising A Puppy and How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend) trying to establish a baseline of knowledge concerning both dog biology and dog psychology to aid the integration of this creature into our home and to improve our chances of training and controlling the animal in a manner beneficial to both parties.
While we’ve been largely successful in this endeavor (so much so that it is hard not to be a bit judgmental towards most of the other dopey, clueless dog owners and dog lovers we come across on a daily basis) the mystery largely remains– what is going on inside that little doggie brain?
The unity of The Dog’s Mind
The author is a practicing veterinarian who I gather may have been an American (or at least was fond of the American revolution at one point, based upon the names he gave to his two Golden Retrievers) but at any rate now lives in the UK. This is a strength of the book because he clearly has personal experience with thousands of dogs of a multitude of breeds and he obviously loves the animal, but it is also a weakness because Mr. Fogle is so intelligent and academically-minded that he often spends a lot of time going into medical and biological minutae that the average pet owner neither needs to understand (“Here’s a short explanation of DNA sequencing in the dog genome!”) nor is likely to be interested in (“A research study into the effect of X on lab rats showed Y, which may provide interesting insight on the nature of dogs as well.”).
In other words, this is an at-times-top-heavy but otherwise practically-oriented book written by an extremely knowledgeable, experienced and well-read author (read: “scientific”) that explores not dog behavior, or dog psychology but the dog’s mind.
Essentially, Mr. Fogle seeks to explain how
the dog’s mind is a result of instinct, genetics, evolution and selective breeding… hormones influence the mind… and… maternal and peer imprinting and human intervention alter the ways of the dog.
Key ideas here are that the near ancestor of dogs are wolves, a species which inhabits an “opportunist omnivore” ecological niche, and that dogs can never get away from this historical and genetic fact and that despite breed differences which emphasize one characteristic of the dog over another (scent versus eyesight versus aggressiveness versus size, etc.) the mental core of the dog is common to all breeds and can be shaped by humans the same way.
Physiology and psychology
“The Dog’s Mind” is divided into two parts, “The Anatomy and Physiology of the Dog’s Mind” and “The Psychology of the Dog’s Mind”. The first part explores the role of genetics, the “wiring”, size and layout of the dog’s brain, the five senses, the interplay of hormones and the communication strategies of dogs while the second part explores maternal, peer and human imprinting, social behavior, breed differences and finally the effects of age and ill health on the dog’s mind.
Dogs are sentient beings, aware of their own personalities… Dogs dream… They are amazingly perceptive to nuance and observe the most imperceptible changes in us… dogs have been bred to retain the juvenile characteristics of play, exploration and subservience to the leader.
There are so many fascinating insights in this book, far too many to quote them all so I plan to cover some of the more interesting or important ones and sprinkle other quotes without comment as I go.
Speaking of genetics, the author observes that there are more genes which control behavior than there are genes which control “morphology” (the dog’s physical characteristics and appearance) which is part of the reason that there is a large difference in the morphology of an Irish wolfhound and a Chihuahua after generations of selective breeding, yet the “mind” of each animal is quite similar. It also explains why dogs remain so wolflike after thousands of years of domestication and co-habitation with humans. This is so key for dog owners (and the general public!) to understand and yet, tragically, it is not. Most people expect from dogs thought processes and behaviors that are simply unreasonable given the dog’s mind. The dog comes from the wolf, a predator animal, and every dog, no matter how big, small or lovable, continues to think of himself as a predator animal. Like the wolf, the dog is also a pack animal. Amongst modern humans it is popular to be egalitarian and democratically-minded, but to dogs aristocracy and a pecking order is the most natural and desirable system in the world, so much so that attempts to make the dog an “equal” in a human pack can be greatly destabilizing to the point of psycho-somatic derangement.
(Pro tip: if you ever see a “mean” dog that barks/yips at every dog and stranger passerby, you are actually witnessing a situation where the human is unwittingly beta and the dog has designated itself the alpha pack leader and protector… a truly sad and, for the human, completely unwitting state of affairs!)
In the dog’s limbic system, a battle plays out between his instinctive behavior and the negative or positive stimulus humans provide by punishing or rewarding certain behaviors. If we can create a stronger stimulus than the instinct, the limbic system is overridden and we’re able to control the dog’s behavior. A dog that is “uncontrollable” is simply a dog whose owner has not found a sufficiently stimulating punishment or reward to alter behaviour. This is important not just for control but trainability– the dog’s mind is most amenable to learning when its interest is aroused which is why positive reinforcement (systems like “marker training“) tend to be the most effective ways to establish long-term behavioral conditioning in the dog’s mind.
Touch is the earliest and possibly the most important of all the canine senses.
The role that senses play in the dog’s mind is another critical piece of the puzzle. When a newborn pup emerges from the womb, its ear canals are closed shut, it can not open its eyes and its wonderful sniffer is fairly ineffective. Touch and sensations of warmth are how it maneuvers itself toward its mother’s teat for its nourishment. This connection to touch remains with the dog its entire life and becomes therefore an important tool of social communication– touch a dog and it feels rewarded, ignore a dog and it feels despondent.
While touch has the biggest social implication, it is smell that is the strongest of the five senses. The book explains that taste is actually fairly restricted for dogs, they basically experience taste as “pleasant”, “indifferent”, and “unpleasant” unlike the human experience of salty, sweet, spicy, bitter, etc. And while a dog’s vision is in many ways superior to a human’s both in terms of distance and operation under varied light conditions, the positioning of the eyes on a dog mean that it is best-adjusted to observing peripheral motion, the “furtive movement” of its prey, rather than focusing on objects directly in front of it. Dogs are also known for their ability to hear sound frequencies humans can not perceive and are even considered to be “musical”, but it is truly the sense of smell that is most developed and differentiated in the dog which means that the dog’s mind primarily experiences the state of reality through smell.
Dogs have around 220 million scent receptors around their nose compared to the average human’s five million.
Smell memories last for life and affect almost all canine behaviors.
The dog uses scent in a number of ways– to sense prey, to sense other dogs, to sense a mating opportunity, etc. The reason dogs seem to forward with humans, sniffing our butts just as they sniff other dogs, is because in a dog the anal glands have developed to give an ID to other dogs. And because smell is so key to the functioning of the dog’s mind, it is the ability to get out of the house and smell things, rather than the exercise, which is most satisfying and important to a dog on a walk. It also means that “the quality of life of a blind dog can still be quite good.”
The chapter on hormones is somewhat technical but one important idea is that in tact male dogs live their entire lives with male sex hormone circulating throughout their body, whereas in tact females only experience the female sex hormone twice a year for a total of four months. This means the volatility of a female dog’s personality is greater than a male’s.
Selective breeding by humans has enhanced the “infantile” vocalizations of dogs. For example, adult dogs rarely whine at each other, but rather at us humans– a learned response. There are 5 primary vocalizations for dogs:
Dogs also are masters of body language in communicating to one another, and to observant humans, how they are feeling, manipulating the position of their mouths, ears, tails, hackles, front and hind quarters and even their entire bodies to demonstrate a range of emotional experiences. And in dogs, staring is a form of dominance (like physical mounting), only alpha dogs can look directly at other dogs, so when you pet your dog and it looks away it is expressing deference to you, not disinterest.
When it comes to the developing dog mind, early exposure to mild stress (loud noises, sudden movements, bright lights, etc.) are valuable in creating a stable, even-tempered pet. Dogs are learning all the time and what they are exposed to frequently and at duration (called “flooding”) they learn to tolerate or even accept as natural.
The concept of “imprinting” is also important. There is a key window in the puppy’s development, from around weeks 6-12, during which it is critical the puppy not only be exposed to humans but also to other dogs so that it learns that both are part of its pack. A puppy only exposed to humans becomes fearful and protective around other dogs, and a puppy only exposed to dogs becomes anxious and often untrainable with humans.
Play is a lifelong activity in dogs… as strong in wolves as it is in Yorkshire terriers.
But even with this human imprinting, a dog still thinks of itself as a dog and expects the human to behave as a dog does, participating in group activities, playing, hunting together and sleeping in the same den.
Puppy Aptitude Tests (PAT) have become popular when selecting a pet from a new litter, but there is little research that shows these techniques are successful indicators of long-term behavior other than those which demonstrate aggression or dominance, which tend to persist into adulthood but which are also rare in high levels in the dog population as a whole.
Regarding dog training, it is important to remember that dogs don’t think symbolically, they operate on a “what you see is what you get” basis. They learn three ways:
Dogs are also ALWAYS learning. They pay attention to all cause and effect relationships and will expect them to happen consistently in the future once substantiated once unless they are conditioned out of the expectation. This is why, for example, my dog becomes alert and predatory at the corner of my block in front of a house where it once saw a cat on the lawn– it happened one time and is now imprinted in her mind so she expects to see the cat each time and gets aroused in anticipation.
It’s worth quoting Mr. Fogle at length on this point:
Dogs are learning all the time and our objective is to control the stimuli, responses and rewards. We can do so by reinforcing, not reinforcing or punishing the behavior… They learn fastest when their behavior is consistently rewarded… The timing, intensity and intervals of reinforcement all have direct consequences on learned behavior. Reinforcement must be immediate… The object of canine punishment should be to reveal your power, not inflict pain… if a learned behavior is not reinforced, it is eventually lost.
Another important implication of the way dogs are always learning is that they interpret our reactions to their behavior as the control they have over us. If we respond to unwanted behaviors, they see that as their dominance or assertiveness operating. As humans, we must be very thoughtful about how we respond to all dog behaviors, good and bad, at least as far as we morally categorize them as such.
There was also an interesting list in the book showing tendency of behaviors between male and female, with more likely in females at the top and more likely in males at the bottom:
I also thought it was interesting that the author noted that most dog breeds are similar in intelligence although their capacity to excel in certain roles and functions is quite different. Many people tend to think of very small and very large breeds as “dumb” dogs not worth training.
As I said, there is a ton of information in this book. I had read a lot of it in other places before I got to this book, and I found some of the detailed explanations of biological processes a bit overwhelming and beyond my interest in reading the book but that doesn’t change the fact that this is chock full of info. In fact, there is a very handy appendix with training tips for some of the primary behaviors every pet dog should have (come, sit, stay, down, etc.) and the latter half of the book dealing with dog psychology includes not only diagnoses of various forms of dog aggression but also suggestions on how to prevent or treat their development as behavior traits, which could be helpful to many people who think they “just have an aggressive/mean dog.”
Dogs don’t think and behave as we like them to, they think and behave as they do, and what they do is strongly influenced by their genetic heritage as wolves as well as the early experiences they have in the litter and in our care. If we want to have enjoyable relationships with our dogs and other people’s dogs which are increasingly prevalent parts of our society, we would do well to become familiar with the essential knowledge contained in books like “The Dog’s Mind.” It will fundamentally change our relationship with these creatures and may even leave us appreciating, rather than bemoaning, our biological differences.
Class: A Guide Through The American Status System (buy on Amazon.com)
by Paul Fussell, published 1983
A “valueprax” review always serves two purposes: to inform the reader, and to remind the writer. Find more reviews by visiting the Virtual Library.
“A touchy subject”
Is class “America’s forbidden thought”? Does class bring up “unpleasing” notions? Does class exist in America?
While things may have been different in 1983 when this book was first published, for most of my life I have heard a lot about class– in literature, reading history, in the news and in conversation with friends, family, colleagues and strangers. The divisions that are most common are “upper class”, “middle class” and “working class”. Oh, and “the rich”. We don’t seem to have “lower classes”, and it isn’t always clear what the difference is between “the rich” and “upper class”, or even the well-to-do “middle class” and the “upper class”, or the barely-hanging-in-there “middle class” and the “working class.” We often hear about “the poor” but no one seems to have ever seen or spoken to one. The homeless don’t count.
These are primarily economic distinctions but, then, America’s economic identity has loomed larger than much else throughout time so that stands to reason. But Paul Fussell is more concerned with the elements of class which are connected to choice, call it taste, and so am I. Class is a confusing and complex subject and I don’t think Fussell manages to precisely and objectively define the term before launching into his observations, yet somehow this doesn’t prevent him from hitting his mark.
There’s so much to the idea of class and yet what has always fascinated me is the behavioral aspect of it. How a person of a certain class will tend to behave whatever his economic standing, whatever his occupation or role, whatever his level of education or wherever he grew up. Is there something genetic to class? It may be.
Segmenting the classes
Fussell identifies nine primary American classes despite the typical sociologists system of five:
The first three constitute a group, the next four constitute a second group and the last two constitute the final group. There are several interesting things to note about this arrangement. First, Fussell sees many similarities in behavior between the absolute top and the absolute bottom which is why they are similarly named (for modern, statistically-inclined socialists, read “top 1%” and “bottom 1%”). Second, the arrangement of classes 2-4 highlight the tendency of those closer to the top to see themselves as more average while acknowledging the penchant of those closer to the middle to identify more closely with the top out of aspirational exasperation and paranoia.
Third, there is a glaring emphasis on crude commonality and the reality that much of the American populace looks, lives and behaves in a peasant-like fashion. While the proletarians were historically disenfranchised, undifferentiated masses providing cheap labor in industrialized urban environments, the truth is these people were and always will be peasants at heart and Fussell, joyously, acknowledges this in his class distinctions. The lack of buffer between destitution and proletarianism also shows how, whether they’re aware of it or not, those who look “down” on them from “above” can rarely tell the difference between a stable prole and a lost one.
While he comes up with 9 categories, in reality Fussell spends an inordinate amount of his time discussing the habits and tastes of proles, another, smaller fraction typifying the “uppers” and the remaining moments pointing out how anxious the few middle class people are between these two poles.
Through an exploration of appearance, living space, consumption habits, intellectual pursuits and speech Fussell tries to narrow in on specific details that can help us see class clearly. As you read through this material, two things happen: one, you become retrospectively more observant of the behavior of others you’ve witnessed without special note and two, you flinch each time you realize you’ve done something prole yourself.
This might be a good place to collect some of my favorite observations and append my comments.
Our former lower-middle class, the new high proles, now head “the masses”… they are identifiable as people things are done to. They are in bondage to monetary policy, rip-off advertising, crazes and delusions, mass low culture, fast foods, consumer schlock.
To that I’d add food pyramids (government nutritional diktat), public education and (increasingly related) a lifestyle of indebtedness. And “social engineering” broadly understood.
Imagine being under the constant eye of the foreman, a figure who has absolutely no counterpart in middle-class society [and] being required to bring a doctor’s note if they are absent a day…the degree to which your work is overseen by a superior suggests your real class more accurately than the amount you take home from it.
Interpreting class as a choice, I think it is even truer to observe whether one’s supervisor feels the need to ask you for that note or not, for example. The truly lower class person is held in check and formally “made honest” by the routine of the doctor’s note (even if he’s making one up or paying the GP off to scribble out a stack of notes for his use). The low-skilled worker who is nonetheless classy at heart never raises this suspicion from his supervisors and would probably find the exercise offensive and detrimental to the trust he has in his managers.
This idea of a spectrum of supervision is an interesting one. We can see the self-made entrepreneur at one end of the band and the on-the-job-transient at the other. Curiously, major corporate executives probably belong close to the transient, being supervised closely by the regulatory-legal apparatus and, nominally, by a board of directors and shareholders… some “kings of the world” they are! Elite politicians are clearly upper class in this sense, inhabiting a space close to the entrepreneur, but perhaps even further for those who have truly made it– the Clintons, Roosevelts and Al Sauds and others who are beyond scrutiny and control.
At the bottom of the working class, the low prole is identifiable by the gross uncertainty of his employment.
What I think Fussell is referring to here are people like construction workers, whose only hope of holding steady work is that the bubble of the day keep on inflating. When it pops, these types usually experience grave setbacks and may even take up or return to a life of petty crime to get by.
But what I think many (middle class? high proles?) would think of here is the crude characterization of the cold workings of a competitive market place, where the poor working stiff minds his own business and then loses his job in a sudden, mass layoff. Or where the boss just doesn’t like you, because you talk back or look at him funny or remind him of someone he hated in high school, so he fires you.
This doesn’t really happen in real life. Assuming a company is a viable going concern and not a fraud or otherwise mismanaged (in which case ALL staff jobs are at risk, prole and management alike), most prole occupations are secure with good behavior and dedication to the cause. While the bogeyman of job security is trotted out now and again, implicitly or explicitly, either in the case of a significant behavioral breach or as a means of putting the piss into the team and reminding them who is in charge, it’s all in “good fun.” Most employers aren’t that capricious because competition goes both ways and they can quickly lose much more than a staff member if they treat people like crap all the time.
a cheap way to achieve a kind of distinction is to be thin… flaunting obesity is a prole sign, as if the object were to offer maximum aesthetic offense to the higher classes and thus exact a form of revenge.
One flight across the country nowadays is all you need to remind you what class you’re in. If you can comfortably sit in an economy airline seat for 5 hours, there’s an excellent chance you are middle class at least.
legibility of their dress is another sign… T-shirts or caps with messages on them you’re supposed to read and admire… When proles assemble to enjoy leisure, they seldom appear in clothing without words on it.
Another example is the way proles turn unhealthy lifestyles into faux-pride brands, such as “Big Dog”. And the penultimate in legible clothing is the wearing of sports jerseys in public, conspicuously and most frequently outside of sporting events and arenas or as a form of semi-formal dress wear. In fact, I was rather dismayed to see Fussell miss this one, but then a correspondent reminded me: “Sports jerseys as casual wear were unthinkable at the time of ‘Class’. If there were to be a new edition, one would have to assess virtually the entire country as prole.”
On baseball caps:
The little strap at the rear is the significant prole feature because it demeans the buyer and the user, making him do the work formerly thought the obligation of the seller, who used to have to stock numerous sizes.
This was such a quaint observation looking back. Gone are the days of the plastic adjusto-strap. “Lids” nowadays are characterized by a bowl cut with a sewn in elastic band thus making them all “one-size-fits-all” which looks as believable as a one-size-fits-all dress shirt would. The funny thing is that some proles have adopted the perpetual wearing of the merchandising stickers as a sign of pride, as if to suggest this “lid” just came off the shelf (or better– was just sneakily removed from it without the vendors notice). Many other proles have graduated on to capless attire, headwear having degenerated so much amongst the lower classes that you can now spot a prole by his lack of cranial adornment (typically with an odd, early-balding molting pattern on the dome signifying poor diet and careless lifestyle choices) and similarly you can spot an ambitious member of the lower middle class by his decision to wear a simple, out-dated hat for the look and thrill of wearing it rather than because it is considered respectable or polite to cover one’s bird’s nest.
And for the she-prole, there is nothing that shouts “I am sexy and interesting” at a party or while walking a yippie, twerp man-repellant dog around the neighborhood like the flourescent trucker hat which could only be complete, of course, with the throwback old-school plastic prole adjusto-strap.
you could probably draw a trustworthy class line based wholly on the amount of sugar consumed by the family
And thus, one of the most important and yet overlooked motivations of the “paleo diet” movement beyond health. In a society experiencing high prole drift, it seems only natural that those with class would take a stand anywhere they can in drawing clear class boundaries.
This is such a great book with so many things to quote and comment on, I simply don’t have the time. Maybe I will follow this post up eventually with another round of “Class” wits but for now the media above should suffice. This book is a clear 5/5.
Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (buy on Amazon.com)
by Simon Schama, published 1990
A “valueprax” review always serves two purposes: to inform the reader, and to remind the writer. Find more reviews by visiting the Virtual Library.
An attempt at an analytical reading
I’ve been reading as many books as ever lately, but I haven’t had the time or the interest to review much of what I have read perhaps in part because my reading has felt rather “aimless”. It isn’t that I am reading a random assortment of books willy-nilly with no unifying logic to why I take them off the shelf, it is more about not having a particular purpose as I read, failing to annotate and highlight and thus make the book my own and therefore ending up with the feeling of “What did I take away from this?”
Luckily for me, I read a book several years ago called “How To Read A Book” and posted what I think was a rather excellent summary of its main ideas. I went back to this post a few days ago as I became acutely aware of my perception of my recent reading experiences and looked it over and in so doing gained resolve.
As I work through this review, I aim to discuss the following:
Now, #5 is going to be tough because as I mentioned, I didn’t bother annotating or underlining anything in this book. I really don’t have an easy way to reference key ideas or moments where the author built his argument. Similarly, #6 is a challenge. Instead, I am working with my general impression of the text having completed it.
I also want to avoid criticism of the author and his treatment and focus on my own understanding of the subject as gleaned from the book. Although I’ve studied the events in detail at other times in my academic history and through other books (The Days of the French Revolution) I am by no means an expert on the period and I certainly haven’t read or investigated it enough to spot errors in the author’s knowledge or specific arguments. Instead, my desire is to explore what I took away from the reading and what about my own cognitive abilities or knowledge hindered me from getting more.
In that vein, one of the things HTRAB recommends is to read with the following question in mind: “What problem was the author trying to solve in writing this book?”
Related to this is the personal question: “Why am I reading this book? What question do I hope to answer by reading it?”
So why did I read “Citizens”? I’ve been exploring the cause of political revolutions for several years and over time my perspective is coalescing around the idea that there is no such thing as a popular revolution– that all political change occurs at the top and is pushed down rather than occurring at the bottom and destabilizing the top. My view is that a political system always has a set of elites at the top who control it (the “in elites”) and a set of elites who can be grouped as those without power but aiming to influence power or agitating to get it themselves (the “out elites”). These two groups are always in conflict with one another and while they may use non-elite social groups as a tool in the struggle, these non-elite groups never act autonomously or without the express authority and direction of one of the elite groups.
In ancient monarchic regimes, this view can be clearly exemplified by “intrigues of court” in which the monarch, his friends and his family are constantly fighting to maintain power against antagonized aristocratic groups and other claimants to the thrown (internally) and foreign powers seeking domination or control (externally), with the frequent circumstance that foreign intrigues come to dominate internal politics and vice versa.
The two major countervailing examples of this theory are the American and French Revolutions, both of which were supposed to be popular uprisings against corrupt central authorities which results in a wholesale transformation of the political landscape. The more I studied the American Revolution, the more it became obvious that, for example, the Continental Congress was a group of colonial elites claiming representation of “the people” who were conspiring not for more liberty but to have and to create the power of the colonial government themselves in opposition to the British king and parliament. The French Revolution, then, seemed to stand alone as a popular affair.
The question: “Was the French Revolution an example of a spontaneous popular uprising or does it conform to the theory of elite conflict?”
I chose “Citizens” to explore this question because Simon Schama’s thesis is an explicit answer to that question: the French Revolution was not a popular uprising but an example of an elite-driven reform movement getting out of hand, and the end result of the event was not to put in place an entirely new governing structure but rather to exchange captains and confederates from one regime to another, with the means of governance and central social problems largely unchanged.
Schama divides “Citizens” into three parts:
Although the text largely moves chronologically, there is some jumping ahead (often in the form of acknowledgements of a particular person’s eventual fate, or the irony of their present behavior given a later position they adopt) and back. Each chapter attempts to explore a specific theme from multiple angles and people’s perspectives. The three parts of the book chronologically explore the ancien regime of Louis XVI, the events of the French Revolution leading up to the end of the monarchy and the formation of the revolutionary Republic and finally the implosion of the Republic into the Directory and the Terror.
As the title of the book suggests, another way to think of these parts is the changing conception of the French public (elites and commoners) from the subjects of a monarchy, to the citizens of a republic and finally, to un-personhood during the paranoia of the Terror in which everyone was suspect and might be tried and executed as a threat at any time. A final thematic overlay are the ideas and periods of reform, revolution and repression and retrogression.
The argument, outlined
In the first part, Schama explores the idea that rather than being a squalid, repressive and backward political entity, the French Monarchy of the late 1700’s was progressive-minded (even for its time) and was already engaged in various reforms up to the eve of the events which came to be known as the French Revolution. While the French state consisted of a large and growing bureaucracy and a complicated and at times oppressive tax authority, the monarch and his ministers were civic-minded and future-oriented and saw themselves as having a duty to improving the lives and welfare of the common public. From supporting internal trade freedoms to celebrating technological achievements (hot air balloons were an exciting development of the times), the French monarchy was engaged in a process of self-criticism and analysis and attempting to implement the “state of the art” in a variety of fields.
One major challenge to this effort was the financial overhang of the Seven Years’ War and French sponsorship of the American War of Independence which resulted in repeated strains and logjams as the monarchy tried to fund current expenditures. Another was the sense amongst many out elites, including a rising professional class of bureaucrats who had purchased or gained their office through personal qualification, that the reform movement wasn’t going fast enough and left too many undue privileges in the hands of hereditary nobles and entitled clergy.
This reform movement occurred against a backdrop of philosophical debate. While some elites held on to ancient notions of nobility, gentility and class, and new class of professional elites were held in thrall to the naturalism and humanism of Rousseau, who “Citizens” portrays as a peerless thought-leader amongst the aggrieved counter-elite. Rousseau held up a notion of primitive equality, simplicity and “sensibilite” as the hallmarks of an enlightened society in contrast to the ranks and obligations, splendor and sentimentality of the monarchy and aristocratic society.
The Revolution itself began as series of largely disconnected challenges to the power of the king and his ministers which initially aimed at testing their resolve and forcing their hand with regards to particular reforms. Over a short period of time, however, the various agitators united around a common theme– first, opposition to the monarchy itself and promotion of the establishment of competing institutions of social power (the Legislative Assembly) and later, the wholesale destruction of the monarchy and nobility as a threat to the revolutionary movement.
What is fascinating about this period is observing who the revolutionaries were. Not the members of the lynch mobs and other mass movements, but the members of the Legislative Assembly and other successive political bodies. These people were mostly current minor and major nobility, clergy, and many legal professionals and provincial politicians. The king’s own cousin, the Duc d’Orleans, was one of the leading revolutionaries (until he was guillotined in the ensuing hysteria of the Revolution) whose residence in Paris was a hotbed of anti-monarchic intellectualism and activity.
Although Paris fishwives drove the cannon to Versaille, none sat in the Legislative Assembly. Though artisans and other manual laborers helped tear down the Bastille, none spoke in the National Convention. And while peasants were recruited for the revolutionary militias to fight counter-revolutionaries foreign and domestic, no peasant’s son was a member of the Directory.
The revolution lost
The murder of Louis XVI, his wife and many of his ministers marked the physical end of the monarchy and the dawn of an elite civil war which culminated in the submission of the Republic at the feet of an even more powerful central authority, the military dictator and self-styled emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. With the legitimacy of power itself questioned by the revolution, it seems only natural that the logical outcome would be a series of murderous battles for power ending in the dominance of a military figure.
As I read the book and watched one “patriot” after another turn on each other and seek the shedding of blood as a solution to all crises and recriminations I wondered how much of the paranoia was sincere versus concocted to serve a short-term political purpose. Although launched by out elites originally, the Revolution created no stable platform for the in elites to control and thus the political competition intensified dramatically. The constant accusations of foreign plots and emigres counter-revolutionary schemes at times seemed constructed and artificial, yet the universalist tone of the French Revolution and the intermarriage of European political elites across national boundaries meant there were good reasons why foreign outsides wanted “in”, too.
One of my biggest challenges with this book is my inability to pronounce French words and names, and my limited understanding of many of the French terms and locations introduced, many of which I was unsure if they were properly defined before being relied upon in the narrative. For example, the term “ci-devant” was used in nearly every chapter, sometimes multiple times, but when I looked it up in the index for its first instance I saw no way to define the term other than a better reading of context than I had. I realize I should’ve looked it up right away, it refers to a “reactionary” political person and in the context of the French Revolution connoted an elite who resisted the changes brought about. This is a good example of the value of HTRAB’s suggestions of focusing on key language an author uses to make his arguments and studying the usage itself!
Relatedly, I struggled to keep track of all the major figures of the period, and there were many in part because this period convulsed much of French society but also partly because so many met grisly ends and had their responsibilities taken up by another who in turn became prominent in the proceedings.
Something I really enjoyed about Schama’s writing was its referencing of artistic works of the period which illustrated the events. It’s not so much that I am a simpleton who prefers words to pictures but rather, I felt the selection and abundance of imagery served to capture the mood and subtleties of various moments that are hard to appreciate in just reading about them. Especially interesting from this standpoint are the various “ideal imagery” commissioned by the revolutionary government to celebrate fallen heroes. The way these people are depicted, the details emphasized, the details left out and the obvious attempt to actively control the moral tone of events demonstrated the important role forms of propaganda played in elevating one faction and lowering another as the civil war raged on. The fetishism of the Roman Republic and its heroes and martyrs was also telling and very Rousseauian in the sense of idealizing noble savagery.
Is it not obvious that a revolution is betrayed by obsessing about the establishment of norms and structures which belong to the past?
I believe Simon Schama wanted to demonstrate that the Revolution was not spontaneous and grassroots, but an elite phenomenon, thus satisfying my curiosity. I think he also was concerned with highlighting the violence of the Revolution as a necessary part and logically-connected to its ideals, rather than something that was a minor theme or an unsightly outlier aspect. In both of these efforts, I believe he succeeded. I think I would’ve gotten much more out of this book if I had done more to “make it my own” as I read it. That being said, I enjoyed the read overall and found it truly terrifying contemplating how violent things can become when the out elites give up on working within the system. This was a strange observation for me to make because I don’t think of myself as a defender of the status quo or anxious to see a measured pace for reform and political change– just the opposite. I found myself wondering “which side” I would’ve taken, and what I might have done to ensure I survived to the end!
A theme for discussion between a good friend and I over the last couple of years has been the existence of a dichotomy between life satisfaction and life happiness. We have been debating whether there is a difference between being satisfied with life and being happy about one’s life. We have discussed whether happiness is possible, and, if so, whether it is a desirable emotional state over an extended period of time. A related idea is whether one should measure the moral quality of one’s life by the metric of happiness (ie, if I am happy, then I live a “good” life and if I am unhappy, then I live a “bad” life).
I can’t say we’ve come to any meaningful conclusions so far and part of the problem seems to be that we can’t even agree on any meaningful definitions. This probably is not a unique or original discussion but we’re not familiar with the literature on it or else skeptical about the approach of some who have made attempts. Normally I am hesitant to engage in philosophical inquiry without agreeing on terms ahead of time but this is too “meta” at this point to do anything but grope around in the dark for a place to start so I’m going to pen a few thoughts as they stand now, as they come to me.
One thing we’ve pondered is whether there is room for any negative emotions in a person who is happy. Does one have to feel and describe oneself as “happy” ALL the time, MOST of the time, A LOT of the time or just SOME of the time to honestly bear the moniker? Does being happy mean ignoring or even repressing the negative emotions one might experience (sadness, anger, disappointment)? This gets at the question of whether happiness is authentic and human– does being happy necessitate disconnecting part of your emotional apparatus and living a kind of emotional lie?
What are the necessary components of a happy person’s life? Can one be happy in poverty? In sickness? In loneliness? Can one be happy in a moment of failure, or a lifetime full of it? Can the stupid be happy? The incompetent? The mean? Are there different varieties of happy, or just one? Different qualities, or just one? Is the happiness of an accomplished, healthy adult the same as the happiness of a decrepit moron? Is a child’s happiness like an adult’s? (And is an adult’s even possible?)
Is happiness possible for everyone, or just a lucky few? Does it come with hard work and discipline or is it connected to the genetic lottery and inbred disposition? A popular idea is that everyone can find work they love that they’re passionate about, yet only few people seem to describe their jobs or careers as emotionally fulfilling. Is happiness like these wonderful jobs or social roles?
Another thing we wonder about is whether happiness comes from accomplishments and milestones, things achieved and earned or accumulated, material or otherwise, or whether happiness is an outcome of process, procedure and the act of living itself? Can one be making progress towards things one wants, without ever getting them, and be happy or does a goal need to be seized to secure happiness along with it?
My friend spent some time reading some Arthur Schopenhauer with his wife and while I haven’t read it, the synopsis I got from him is that life is a living hell and the best one can hope to do is get as far away from the flames as possible. This view of the world might seem reasonable for someone living with chronic hunger, crushing poverty or within an active war zone or communist regime. But is it a reasonable conclusion for a young couple in a major American city who are closer to joining the top 1% than the bottom 1%?
This is where the idea of happiness becomes a moral weapon. If we don’t suffer any particular hardships, but we also don’t find ourselves emotionally fulfilled by our lives, does this mean we are not happy and must compound our circumstances by heaping moral approbation on ourselves for this emotional failure? Could we allow ourselves to acknowledge we are merely satisfied with our lives and get on with living them?
I think about dying (hopefully decades from now) without happiness. Ignoring that death itself doesn’t seem to be a happy circumstance however you go about it, I wonder if reaching that point and having a final or recent thought being “I didn’t manage to achieve happiness over the course of my life” kind of takes whatever satisfaction you might have up to that point away from you at the last moment leaving you with truly nothing. Not your life, not your friends and family, not your wealth and not even a final happy thought before you blink out of existence. (For those who cherish the idea of an afterlife, what if you make it into the kingdom of heaven a moral saint but your soul is plagued by a Woody Allen-esque neurotic paranoia with regards to contentment and joy? I realize the very notion might be blasphemous or at least theologically untenable but work with me here on the existential problem I am grasping at.)
Now what if I reach my point of universal departure and I am not happy, but I am confident my life was a satisfying one? I have no major complaints, I’ve got a few things I care quite a bit about and I learned enough about those things and how I relate to them to effect some kind of meaningful impact according to my values? Should I be disappointed at that point if that was the most I could manage?
I then try to follow this logic back from my eventual time of death to my present existence. Where am I “going”? I won’t know until I get there. What if where I am “going” is where I am right now? And I am not rapturous about life, but I am not miserable?
What if not much changes between now and then? I’m about who I am, I have about what I have, I suffer no major indignities, troubles or traumas and I just keep going about the routine I am in albeit as a slightly older person with each iteration? I dream and scheme, I work toward these goals but I don’t get “there.” Can I be satisfied with a satisfying life? Or must I start chastising myself somewhere down the line for my personal stagnation? Is life that much greater if it’s characterized by greater intensity and frequency over time of a particular pattern I’m engaged in right now? Is one happiness and the other only satisfaction?
I doubt anyone would want to read a book about my life right now. He ate this. He read that. He walked the dog. I might not live a life worth retelling by the time I die, either. Is that some kind of existential problem for me?