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Category archive: Bits from books

Sunday November 29 2015

I have begun reading Matt Ridley’s latest book, The Evolution of Everything.  Early signs: brilliant.  I especially liked this bit (pp. 7-10), about modern ideas in the ancient world:

A ‘skyhook’ is an imaginary device for hanging an object from the sky.  The word originated in a sarcastic remark by a frustrated pilot of a reconnaissance plane in the First World War, when told to stay in the same place for an hour: ‘This machine is not fitted with skyhooks,’ he replied.  The philosopher Daniel Dennett used the skyhook as a metaphor for the argument that life shows evidence of an intelligent designer.  He contrasted skyhooks with cranes - the first impose a solution, explanation or plan on the world from on high; the second allow solutions, explanations or patterns to emerge from the ground up, as natural selection does.

The history of Western thought is dominated by skyhooks, by devices for explaining the world as the outcome of design and planning.  Plato said that society worked by imitating a designed cosmic order, a belief in which should be coercively enforced.  Aristotle said that you should look for inherent principles of intentionality and development - souls - within matter. Homer said gods decided the outcome of battles. St Paul said that you should behave morally because Jesus told you so. Mohamed said you should obey God’s word as transmitted through the Koran.  Luther said that your fate was in God’s hands.  Hobbes said that social order came from a monarch, or what he called ‘Leviathan’ - the state. Kant said morality transcended human experience.  Nietzsche said that strong leaders made for good societies.  Marx said that the state was the means of delivering economic and social progress. Again and again, we have told ourselves that there is a top-down description of the world, and a top-down prescription by which we should live.

But there is another stream of thought that has tried and usually failed to break through. Perhaps its earliest exponent was Epicurus, a Greek philosopher about whom we know very little.  From what later writers said about his writings, we know that he was born in 341 BC and thought (as far as we can tell) that the physical world, the living world, human society and the morality by which we live all emerged as spontaneous phenomena, requiring no divine intervention nor a benign monarch or nanny state to explain them.  As interpreted by his followers, Epicurus believed, following another Greek philosopher, Dernocritus, that the world consisted not of lots of special substances including spirits and humours, but simply of two kinds of thing: voids and atoms.  Everything, said Epicurus, is made of invisibly small and indestructible atoms, separated by voids; the atoms obey the laws of nature and every phenomenon is the result of natural causes.  This was a startlingly prescient conclusion for the fourth century BC.

Unfortunately Epicurus’s writings did not survive.  But three hundred years later, his ideas were revived and explored in a lengthy, eloquent and unfinished poem, De Rerum Natura (Of the Nature of Things), by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus, who probably died in mid-stanza around 49 BC, just as dictatorship was looming in Rome.  Around this time, in Gustave Flaubert’s words, ‘when the gods had ceased to be, and Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius when man stood alone’.  Exaggerated maybe, but free thinking was at least more possible then than before or after.  Lucretius was more subversive, open-minded and far-seeing than either of those politicians (Cicero admired, but disagreed with, him).  His poem rejects all magic, mysticism, superstition, religion and myth.  It sticks to an unalloyed empiricism.

As the Harvard historian Stephen Greenblatt has documented, a bald list of the propositions Lucretius advances in the unfinished 7,400 hexameters of De Rerum Natura could serve as an agenda for modernity.  He anticipated modern physics by arguing that everything is made of different combinations of a limited set of invisible particles, moving in a void. He grasped the current idea that the universe has no creator, Providence is a fantasy and there is no end or purpose to existence, only ceaseless creation and destruction, governed entirely by chance.  He foreshadowed Darwin in suggesting that nature ceaselessly experiments, and those creatures that can adapt and reproduce will thrive.  He was with modern philosophers and historians in suggesting that the universe was not created for or about human beings, that we are not special, and there was no Golden Age of tranquillity and plenty in the distant past, but only a primitive battle for survival.  He was like modern atheists in arguing that the soul dies, there is no afterlife, all organised religions are superstitious delusions and invariably cruel, and angels, demons or ghosts do not exist.  In his ethics he thought the highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.

Thanks largely to Greenblatt’s marvellous book The Swerve, I have only recently come to know Lucretius, and to appreciate the extent to which I am, and always have been without knowing it, a Lucretian/Epicurean.  Reading his poem in A.E. Stallings’s beautiful translation in my sixth decade is to be left fuming at my educators.  How could they have made me waste all those years at school plodding through the tedious platitudes and pedestrian prose of Jesus Christ or Julius Caesar, when they could have been telling me about Lucretius instead, or as well?  Even Virgil was writing partly in reaction to Lucretius, keen to re-establish respect for gods, rulers and top-down ideas in general. Lucretius’s notion of the ceaseless mutation of forms composed of indestructible substances - which the Spanish-born
philosopher George Santayana called the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon - has been one of the persistent themes of my own writing.  It is the central idea behind not just physics and chemistry, but evolution, ecology and economics too.  Had the Christians not suppressed Lucretius, we would surely have discovered Darwinism centuries before we did.

Monday November 23 2015

I have been reading Peter Foster’s book, Why We Bite the Invisible Hand: The Psychology of Anti-Capitalism.  And very good it is.  Here are some of the things Foster says about Robert Owen (pp. 86-69, pp 92-95:

After he built Cromford, Arkwright became involved in the development of another even more spectacular water-driven venture, at New Lanark in Scotland. The fast-flowing river below the beautiful Falls of Clyde made the site ideal.  Arkwright’s partner there was David Dale, a respected Glasgow merchant. The notoriously prickly Arkwright fell out with Dale, reportedly over a triviality, and withdrew. Dale took control and continued to expand, but the reason New Lanark is so well preserved today is not that it is seen as a monument to capitalism.  Quite the contrary. Dale’s son-in-law, Robert Owen, turned New Lanark into the promotional centre for a Utopian dream, where he nurtured anti-capitalist sentiment. A fair amount of anti-capitalist sentiment still seems to pervade the site today.

Owen’s New Lanark was very far from being an experiment in socialism understood as collective ownership and control.  Workers had neither shares in the mill nor much - if any - say in how it was run.  Nor was Owen a political revolutionary.  What he did share in common with more radical socialists was opposition to religion; belief that human nature was an indeterminate clay ("blank slate"), there to be moulded by men such as himself; distaste for the “individual selfish” competitive system and private property (even though they enabled him to promote his muddled ideas); demonization of money; and a generally woolly notion of how economies - as opposed to individual businesses - work.  Owen rejected Adam Smith’s idea of gradual improvement under a system of “natural liberty.” For him, cotton masters, the men who owned and ran the mills, were (except for himself) greedy and selfish, while workers were oppressed sheep to be led, with himself as the Good Shepherd.

Adam Smith had shrewdly noted that people by nature give far more deference to the ideas of the wealthy than they deserve.  Of few people was this more true than Robert Owen.

Owen was born on May 14, 1771, in Newtown in Wales, five years before the publication of The Wealth of Nations. He received only a rudimentary education before being shipped off by his parents to work in the drapery business. He proved an assiduous employee and developed a keen interest in the then-booming textile industry. He started his own business but soon returned to employment as a mill manager in Manchester.  Close to his 20th birthday, he was reportedly managing 500 workers, at the then substantial salary of £300 a year.  Owen soon found investors to help him start his own mill.  He also became interested in education and social reform (which was the rule rather than the exception for industrialists of the time).  However, when he visited New Lanark he saw a place where he might indulge a nascent vision of industrial harmony, a New Jerusalem in which he would be the secular Messiah.

Owen courted David Dale’s daughter, Anne Caroline, married her on September 30, 1799, and took over New Lanark early in 1800 on what seemed generous terms, essentially promising to pay Dale out of the mill’s future profits.  New Lanark was the basis for the fortune and reputation that enabled Robert Owen to indulge his ideas. The scale of New Lanark seems extraordinary even today, but to visitors from the present, if they could travel back to Owen’s time, the most arresting feature of the place would be that most of its employees were children, supplied by orphanages in Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Child labour has become one of the great fixed images of the Industrial Revolution, but it is inappropriate to take our modern sensitivities back to earlier times. Child labour was common - as it still is in many poor countries - because it was, and is, necessary for the survival of both the children and their families.  It was most necessary for orphans.  Indeed, orphanages paid cotton manufacturers to take their charges off their hands.  David Dale reportedly treated his young employees well.  By 1796 he was employing 16 teachers at the site.

Owen’s desire to prevent children under 10 from working appears wholly admirable, until we remember that this might have led them to starve. His desire to educate children and provide an early equivalent of daycare was worthy but ultimately self-interested in business terms, since these measures increased the skills and contentment - and thus productivity - of the workforce, as did his organization of medical insurance, savings opportunities, food and other provisions. There was no conflict between good business and morality. Indeed, Owen himself constantly, at least in the early days, stressed the importance of these measures for increasing profitability.

The village shop that Owen set up at New Lanark was reportedly an inspiration for the modern cooperative movement, which was founded in the town of Rochdale in Lancashire.  According to a potted history at the New Lanark site, when Owen arrived, there were lots of small traders in the village, “selling poor quality goods at high prices.” He was able to buy in bulk, lower the prices and still make a profit.  But of course this is exactly what supermarkets and big-box stores do today, even as they are castigated for putting the “little guy” … out of business.

Robert Owen put the little guy out of business too. He also made sure that no other traders could survive in the village, by paying his workers with “tickets for wages,” which they could spend only at his village shop.  Elsewhere such enforced commitment to the company store would be cited as evidence of corporate villainy, but Owen declared that his own motives weren’t “selfish.” The important thing was not what was good for him, but what was good for mankind, although he clearly expected a little kudos for showing mankind the way.

At New Lanark, Owen in fact displayed more of the enlightened capitalist than of the Utopian dreamer.  One might not doubt his good intentions when it came to spreading education and advocating factory reform, but he seemed eager to bury the fact that many other cottom masters, and businessmen of the time more generally, were enlightened and reform-minded.

As the Napoleonic Wars drew to a close, both mill owners and authorities were disturbed by Luddite riots that resulted in the breaking of new machinery, which was seen as destroying jobs. Robert Owen claimed that what had brought about these awful, and worsening, conditions was economic liberalism and the competitive system, which, he declared, was based on “deception.” He came forward with a series of bold proposals for “villages of unity and co-operation,” which struck many as workhouses by a more glorified name.

Although the great and the good expressed polite interest in Owen’s solutions to what were, after all, pressing problems, many were profoundly skeptical.  John Quincy Adams, then U.S. ambassador to Britain, described Owen in his memoirs as “crafty crazy ... a speculative, scheming, mischievous man.”

Owen managed to draw the ire of both radical reformers, the political economist heirs of Adam Smith, groups that rarely saw eye to eye. The radicals saw Owen’s communities as oppressive, while the economists viewed them as impractical and counterproductive. The reformer William Cobbett described them as “parallelograms of paupers.” The political economist Robert Torrens said it ws difficult to decide whether Owen was a “knave” or an enthusiast “in whose brain a copulation between vanity and benevolence has engendered madness.”

Owen welcomed a steady stream of “philanthropic tourists” at New Lanark. Their number included Grand Duke Nicholas, future czar of Russia.  Some - although presumably not the grand duke - found disquieting authoritarian overtones to Owen’s operation. After watching Owen’s child labourers drill like little soldiers at the mill’s Institution for the Formation of Character (which has been lovingly restored with taxpayers’ money from the European Union), the poet Robert Southey compared the place to a slave plantation.

Parliament ultimately rejected Owen’s scheme. One member suggested that “this visionary plan, if adopted, would destroy the very roots of society.” Owen responded to criticism by making his schemes more grandiose.  Undaunted, he set off to proselytize in the New World, and not merely to lecture but at last to put into effect his grand plan.  He bought an existing cooperative community in Indiana, which he renamed New Harmony.

Owen attracted a large number of settlers, described by one of Owen’s sons, Robert Dale Owen, as a “heterogenous collection of radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle ... and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in.” Owen Sr. soon went back to Britain to spread the word of his success.  Another son, William, confided dolefully to his diary, “The enjoyment of a reformer, I would say, is much more in contemplation, than in reality.”

New Harmony soon started to fall apart.  Skilled labour did not feel inclined to have its income, under Owen’s plan, “equalized” with the unskilled or, worse, with those who did not wish to work at all.  A collectivist scheme such as Owen’s could in effect work only if powered by either religious conviction or forced labour, a lesson that would not be lost on Owen’s more revolutionary successors.

The abolition of money led to a bureaucratic nightmare.  When even lettuce had to pass through the company store, it inevitably wilted before it reached the plate.  (Moscow McDonald’s would encounter analogous problems in trying to get supplies through the collapsing Soviet system almost 200 years later.)

After an absence of two months, Owen returned to New Harmony, arriving by river with intellectual reinforcements dubbed the “boatload of knowledge.” He forced the community through numerous reorganizations, all the while churning out portentous exhortations such as the “Declaration of Mental Independence:’ which promised to free man from the “slavery” of private property, religion and marriage.

One visitor, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, wrote, “He looks forward to nothing else than to remodel the world entirely; to root out all crime; to abolish punishment; to create similar views and similar wants, and in this manner to abolish all dissension and warfare ... He was too unalterably convinced of the result to admit the slightest room for doubt!’ Every other member of the community to whom the duke spoke acknowledged that Owen was “deceived in his expectations!’ The final blow to the community was a falling-out between Owen and William Maclure, a wealthy emigre Scotsman, which led to the two men suing each other over property, the concept New Harmony was meant to transcend.

The one undoubted benefit Owen did bestow upon the former colonies was his children, who turned out to be a good deal more level-headed than their father and who would become prominent in American affairs. Owen then set off on an even more quixotic scheme: to persuade the government of Mexico to grant him a huge swath of land on which to test his theories.  He required Mexico first to abandon Catholicism.  Mexico demurred.  Owen returned to London and embarked upon expansive new ventures.  He became the first president of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, an organization that lasted a year.  Seeking to trump both the pecuniary root of all evil and “unnecessary” middlemen, he set up “labour exchanges,” whereby merchandise was exchanged for “labour notes,” whose value was meant to be calculated according to the hours of sweat embodied in each product.  The administrators found that they could not possibly calculate values this way and were forced to copy market prices.  The labour exchanges collapsed too.

Owen staunchly opposed the “superstition” of religion, and yet his own views were at root profoundly religious, based on a “New Moral World” set up in opposition to a demonic set of greedy capitalists. He founded the Rational Society, complete with Halls of Science instead of churches, and “social hymns.” Sample verse:

Outcasts in your native soil,
Doom’d to poverty and toil,
Strangers in your native land;
Come, and join the social band.

Owen’s acolytes founded another Utopian community, at an estate called Queenwood in Hampshire, whose collapse Owen hastened by spending it into the ground.  One of his more clear-sighted disciples noted that “Mr. Owen was no financier, and had no idea of money.” Queenwood, like New Harmony, imploded amid lawsuits, yet again over property.

Robert Owen represented a psychological type that would persist throughout the business world.  Although such businessmen have a good grasp of their own business, they fail to understand the nature of markets more generally and believe themselves to be morally exceptional in a world marked by short-sighted greed.

Tuesday October 27 2015

One of the key themes of Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature is that moral advance has on the whole not been lead by religion.  Religious people have often defended ancient moral positions, as when defending slavery, for instance.  Only when persuaded by secular moralists of the wrongness of slavery did religious people then become fierce and very vigorous opponents of slavery.  But the secularists lead the way when it came to winning the argument in the first place.  All of which is unsurprising, if you look at what it says in the Bible about such things.  Which Pinker does.  One of the most remarkable passages in The Better Angels is Pinker’s description of what the Old Testament actually says (pp. 7-14).  If you get tired of all the mayhem and slaughter, at least skip to the end and read Pinker’s final paragraph.  As he says, he is not accusing Christians of believing this stuff.  Christians pay the entire Bible “lip service as a symbol of morality”, but they no longer believe in the morality that is actually contained in the first half of it:

Like the works of Homer, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) was set in the late 2nd millennium BCE but written more than five hundred years later.  But unlike the works of Homer, the Bible is revered today by billions of people who call it the source of their moral values.  The world’s bestselling publication, the Good Book has been translated into three thousand languages and has been placed in the nightstands of hotels all over the world.  Orthodox Jews kiss it with their prayer shawls; witnesses in American courts bind their oaths by placing a hand on it.  Even the president touches it when taking the oath of office.  Yet for all this reverence, the Bible is one long celebration of violence.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.  And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.  And the Lord God took one of Adam’s ribs, and made he a woman.  And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.  And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain.  And she again bare his brother Abel.  And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.  With a world population of exactly four, that works out to a homicide rate of 25 percent, which is about a thousand times higher than the equivalent rates in Western countries today.

No sooner do men and women begin to multiply than God decides they are sinful and that the suitable punishment is genocide.  (In Bill Cosby’s comedy sketch, a neighbor begs Noah for a hint as to why he is building an ark. Noah replies, ‘How long can you tread water?’) When the flood recedes, God instructs Noah in its moral lesson, namely the code of vendetta: ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.’

The next major figure in the Bible is Abraham, the spiritual ancestor of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  Abraham has a nephew, Lot, who settles in Sodom.  Because the residents engage in anal sex and comparable sins, God immolates every man, woman, and child in a divine napalm attack.  Lot’s wife, for the crime of turning around to look at the inferno is put to death as well.

Abraham undergoes a test of his moral values when God orders hm to take his son Isaac to a mountaintop, tie him up, cut his throat, and burn his body as a gift to the Lord.  Isaac is spared only because at the last moment an angel stays his father’s hand.  For millennia readers have puzzled over why God insisted on this horrifying trial.  One interpretation is that God intervened not because Abraham had passed the test but because he had failed it, but that is anachronistic: obedience to divine authority, not reverence for human life, was the cardinal virtue.

Isaac’s son Jacob has a daughter, Dinah.  Dinah is kidnapped and raped - apparently a customary form of courtship at the time, since the rapist’s family then offers to purchase her from her own family as a wfe for the rapist.  Dinah’s brothers explain that an important moral principle stands in the way of this transaction: the rapist is uncircumcised.  So they make a counteroffer: if all the men in the rapist’s hometown cut off their foreskins, Dinah will be theirs. While the men are incapacitated with bleeding penises, the brothers invade the city, plunder and destroy it, massacre the men, and carry off the women and children.  When Jacob worries that neighboring tribes may attack them in revenge, his sons explain that it was worth the risk: ‘Should our sister be treated like a whore?’ Soon afterward they reiterate their commitment to family values by selling their brother Joseph into slavery.

Jacob’s descendants, the Israelites, find their way to Egypt and become too numerous for the Pharaoh’s liking, so he enslaves them and orders that all the boys be killed at birth.  Moses escapes the mass infanticide and grows up to challenge the Pharaoh to let his people go.  God, who is omnipotent, could have softened Pharaoh’s heart, but he hardens it instead, which gives him a reason to afflict every Egyptian with painful boils and other miseries before killing every one of their firstborn sons. (The word Passover alludes to the executioner angel’s passing over the households with Israelite firstborns.) God follows this massacre with another one when he drowns the Egyptian army as they pursue the Israelites across the Red Sea.

The Israelites assemble at Mount Sinai and hear the Ten Commandments, the great moral code that outlaws engraved images and the coveting of livestock but gives a pass to slavery, rape, torture, mutilation, and genocide of neighboring tribes.  The Israelites become impatient while waiting for Moses to return with an expanded set of laws, which will prescribe the death penalty for blasphemy, homosexuality, adultery, talking back to parents, and working on the Sabbath.  To pass the time, they worship a statue of a calf, for which the punishment turns out to be, you guessed it, death.  Following orders from God, Moses and his brother Aaron kill three thousand of their companions.

God then spends seven chapters of Leviticus instructing the Israelites on how to slaughter the steady stream of animals he demands of them.  Aaron and his two sons prepare the tabernacle for the first service, but the sons slip up and use the wrong incense.  So God burns them to death.  As the Israelites proceed toward the promised land, they meet up with the Midianites.  Following orders from God, they slay the males, burn their city, plunder the livestock, and take the women and children captive.  When they return to Moses, he is enraged because they spared the women, some of whom had led the Israelites to worship rival gods.  So he tells his soldiers to complete the genocide and to reward themselves with nubile sex slaves they may rape at their pleasure: ‘Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.  But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for your-

In Deuteronomy 20 and 21, God gives the Israelites a blanket policy for dealing with cities that don’t accept them as overlords: smite the males with the edge of the sword and abduct the cattle, women, and children.  Of course, a man with a beautiful new captive faces a problem: since he has just murdered her parents and brothers, she may not be in the mood for love.  God anticipates this nuisance and offers the following solution: the captor should shave her head, pare her nails, and imprison her in his house for a month while she cries her eyes out.  Then he may go in and rape her.

With a designated list of other enemies (Hittites,Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites), the genocide has to be total: ‘Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them ... as the Lord thy God has commanded thee.’

Joshua puts this directive into practice when he invades Canaan and sacks the city of Jericho.  After the walls came tumbling down, his soldiers ‘utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.’ More earth is scorched as Joshua ‘smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.’

The next stage in Israelite history is the era of the judges, or tribal chiefs.  The most famous of them, Samson, establishes his reputation by killing thirty men during his wedding feast because he needs their clothing to pay off a bet.  Then, to avenge the killing of his wife and her father, he slaughters a thousand Philistines and sets fire to their crops after escaping capture, he kills another thousand with the jawbone of an ass.  When he is finally captured and his eyes are burned out, God gives him the strength for a 9/11-like suicide attack in which he implodes a large building, crushing the three thousand men and women who are worshipping inside it.

Israel’s first king, Saul, establishes a small empire, which gives him the opportunity to settle an old score.  Centuries earlier, during the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, the Amalekites had harassed them, and God commanded the Israelites to ‘wipe out the name of Amalek.’ So when the judge Samuel anoints Saul as king, he reminds Saul of the divine decree: ‘Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’ Saul carries out the order, but Samuel is furious to learn that he has spared their king, Agag.  So Samuel ‘hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord.’

Saul is eventually overthrown by his son-in-law David, who absorbs the southern tribes of Judah, conquers Jerusalem, and makes it the capital of a kingdom that will last four centuries.  David would come to be celebrated in story, song, and sculpture, and his six-pointed star would symbolize his people for three thousand years.  Christians too would revere him as the forerunner of Jesus.

But in Hebrew scripture David is not just the ‘sweet singer of Israel,’ the chiseled poet who plays a harp and composes the Psalms.  After he makes his name by killing Goliath, David recruits a gang of guerrillas, extorts wealth from his fellow citizens at swordpoint, and fights as a mercenary for the Philistines.  These achievements make Saul jealous: the women in his court are singing, ‘Saul has killed by the thousands, but David by the tens of thousands.’ So Saul plots to have him assassinated.” David narrowly escapes before staging a successful coup.

When David becomes king, he keeps up his hard-earned reputation for killing by the tens of thousands.  After his general Joab ‘wasted the country of the children of Ammon,’ David ‘brought out the people that were in it, and cut them with saws, and with harrows of iron, and with axes.’ Finally he manages to do something that God considers immoral: he orders a census.  To punish David for this lapse, God kills seventy thousand of his citizens.

Within the royal family, sex and violence go hand in hand. While taking a walk on the palace roof one day, David peeping-toms a naked woman, Bathsheba, and likes what he sees, so he sends her husband to be killed in battle and adds her to his seraglio.  Later one of David’s children rapes another one and is killed in revenge by a third.  The avenger, Absalom, rounds up an army and tries to usurp David’s throne by having sex with ten of his concubines.  (As usual, we are not told how the concubines felt about all this.) While fleeing David’s army, Absalom’s hair gets caught in a tree, and David’s general thrusts three spears into his heart.  This does not put the family squabbles to an end. Bathsheba tricks a senile David into anointing their son Solomon as his successor.  When the legitimate heir, David’s older son Adonijah, protests, Solomon has him killed.

King Solomon is credited with fewer homicides than his predecessors and is remembered instead for building the Temple in Jerusalem and for writing the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (though with a harem of seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines, he clearly didn’t spend all his time writing).  Most of all he is remembered for his eponymous virtue, ‘the wisdom of Solomon.’ Two prostitutes sharing a room give birth a few days apart.  One of the babies dies, and each woman claims that the surviving boy is hers.  The wise king adjudicates the dispute by pulling out a sword and threatening to butcher the baby and hand each woman a piece of the bloody corpse.  One woman withdraws her claim, and Solomon awards the baby to her.  ‘When all Israel heard of the verdict that the king had rendered, they stood in awe of the king, because they saw that he had divine wisdom in carrying out justice.’ The distancing effect of a good story can make us forget the brutality of the world in which it was set.  Just imagine a judge in family court today adjudicating a maternity dispute by pulling out a chain saw and threatening to butcher the baby before the disputants’ eyes.  Solomon was confident that the more humane woman (we are never told that she was the mother) would reveal herself, and that the other woman was so spiteful that she would allow a baby to be slaughtered in front of her - and he was right!  And he must have been prepared, in the event he was wrong, to carry out the butchery or else forfeit all credibility.  The women, for their part, must have believed that their wise king was capable of carrying out this grisly murder.

The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery.  People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families.  Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children.  Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys.  And Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all.  These atrocities are neither isolated nor obscure.  They implicate all the major characters of the Old Testament, the ones that Sunday-school children draw with crayons.  And they fall into a continuous plotline that stretches for millennia, from Adam and Eve through Noah, the patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, the judges, Saul, David, Solomon, and beyond.  According to the biblical scholar Raymund Schwager, the Hebrew Bible ‘contains over six hundred passages that explicitly talk about nations, kings, or individuals attacking, destroying, and killing others. ...  Aside from the approximately one thousand verses in which Yahweh himself appears as the direct executioner of violent punishments, and the many texts in which the Lord delivers the criminal to the punisher’s sword, in over one hundred other passages Yahweh expressly gives the command to kill people.’ Matthew White, a self-described atrocitologist who keeps a database with the estimated death tolls of history’s major wars, massacres, and genocides, counts about 1.2 million deaths from mass killing that are specifically enumerated in the Bible.  (He excludes the half million casualties in the war between Judah and Israel described in 2 Chronicles 13 because he considers the body count historically implausible.) The victims of the Noachian flood would add another 20 million or so to the total.

The good news, of course, is that most of it never happened.  Not only is there no evidence that Yahweh inundated the planet and incinerated its cities, but the patriarchs, exodus, conquest, and Jewish empire are almost certainly fictions.  Historians have found no mention in Egyptian writings of the departure of a million slaves (which could hardly have escaped the Egyptians’ notice); nor have archaeologists found evidence in the ruins of Jericho or neighboring cities of a sacking around 1200 BCE.  And if there was a Davidic empire stretching from the Euphrates to the Red Sea around the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, no one else at the time seemed to have noticed it.

Modern biblical scholars have established that the Bible is a wiki.  It was compiled over half a millennium from writers with different styles, dialects, character names, and conceptions of God, and it was subjected to haphazard editing that left it with many contradictions, duplications, and non sequiturs.

The oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible probably originated in the 10th century BCE.  They included origin myths for the local tribes and ruins, and legal codes adapted from neigh boring civilizations in the Near East.  The texts probably served as a code of frontier justice for the Iron Age tribes that herded livestock and farmed hillsides in the southeastern periphery of Canaan.  The tribes began to encroach on the valleys and cities, engaged in some marauding every now and again, and may even have destroyed a city or two.  Eventually their myths were adopted by the entire population of Canaan, unifying them with a shared genealogy, a glorious history, a set of taboos to keep them from defecting to foreigners, and an invisible enforcer to keep them from each other’s throats.  A first draft was rounded out with a continuous historical narrative around the late 7th to mid-6th century BCE, when the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah and forced its inhabitants into exile.  The final edit was completed after their return to Judah in the 5th century BCE.

Though the historical accounts in the Old Testament are fictitious (or at best artistic reconstructions, like Shakespeare’s historical dramas), they offer a window into the lives and values of Near Eastern civilizations in the mid-1st millennium BCE.  Whether or not the Israelites actually engaged in genocide, they certainly thought it was a good idea.

The possibility that a woman had a legitimate interest in not being raped or acquired as sexual property did not seem to register in anyone’s mind.  The writers of the Bible saw nothing wrong with slavery or with cruel punishments like blinding, stoning, and hacking someone to pieces.  Human life held no value in comparison with unthinking obedience to custom and authority.

If you think that by reviewing the literal content of the Hebrew Bible I am trying to impugn the billions of people who revere it today, then you are missing the point.  The overwhelming majority of observant Jews and Christians are, needless to say, thoroughly decent people who do not sanction genocide, rape, slavery, or stoning people for frivolous infractions.  Their reverence for the Bible is purely talismanic.  In recent millennia and centuries the Bible has been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent texts (the Talmud among Jews and the New Testament among Christians), or discreetly ignored.  And that is the point.  Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible.  They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles.

Sunday September 27 2015

How much you learn from something that you just read depends not only on what it says, but on what you knew before you read it.  And for me, this short paragraph cleared up several big blurs in my knowledge of Olden Times:

The new technique of fighting which had won the battle of Hastings for the Normans was also adopted in England; instead of standing or riding and hurling the lance overarm, these new warriors, the knights, charged on horseback with the lance tucked beneath the arm, so that the weight of both horse and rider was behind the blow and the weapon was reusable.  Though it required discipline and training, giving rise to the birth of tournaments and the cult of chivalry, a charge by massed ranks of knights with their lances couched in this way was irresistible.  Anna Comnena, the Byzantine princess who witnessed its devastating effect during the First Crusade, claimed that it could ‘make a hole in the wall of Babylon’.

That’s from the second page (page 8) of the first chapter of Agincourt, by Juliet Barket.

That bit in school history where they explained what a knight was and what knights did and how the knights did it … well, I missed it.  And ever since, everyone talking about such things has assumed that I knew it very clearly, when I didn’t.  It’s so obvious.  How would someone like me not know it?

Oh, I sort of knew it, from having seen a hundred films where film actors did this, in film battles and in film tournaments.  But I had not realised that it was a military innovation like the phalanx or gunpowder or the tank or the airplane or the atom bomb.  I had not properly realised that the essence of Knighthood was collective action rather than mere individual virtue, the point being that it was the former which required the latter.  And I had not realised that it was what won the Battle of Hastings.  Or, even more interestingly, I had not realised that it was what won the First Crusade.  (After which, I’m guessing that the Muslims then copied it.

Medieval society did not give rise to Knights.  The Knights technique of fighting gave rise to Medieval society.

I remember reading Tom Holland’s Millennium, and being presented right at the end with the result of the First Crusade, without there having been any mention (that I recall) of how a European military innovation was what won it.  (That doesn’t mean Holland does not mention this, merely that I don’t remember him mentioning it.)

So, at the heart of the European years between Hastings (1066) and Agincourt (1415 (when I now suppose the Knights to have met their nemesis in the form of the next big military innovation, the Archers (hence the picture on the front of Agincourt))) was a technique of fighting.  Like I say, I sort of knew this, but have never before isolated this fact in my head, as a Big Fact.  Instead, I have spent my whole life being rather confused about this Big Fact, reading a thousand things where the Big Fact was assumed, but never actually explained.

Why did I not correct this confusion decades ago?  Because, not knowing it properly, I had not realised what a huge confusion it was.

Saturday September 05 2015

One of the many fine things about the internet – and in particular that great internet business, Amazon – is that you can now easily get hold of books that seem interesting, even if they were published a decade and a half ago.  Steven Johnson’s book, Emergence, for instance.  This was published in 2001.  I think it was some Amazon robot system that reckoned I might like it ("lots of people who bought this book you just bought also bought this one").  And I read some Amazon reviews, or whatever, and I did like it, or at least the sound of it, and I duly sent off for it.  (I paid £0.01 plus postage.) And now I’m reading it.

Chapter one of Emergence is entitled “The Myth of the Ant Queen”.  Here is the part of that chapter that describes the research then being done by Deborah Gordon, into ants:

At the heart of Gordon’s work is a mystery about how ant colonies develop, a mystery that has implications extending far beyond the parched earth of the Arizona desert to our cities, our brains, our immune systems - and increasingly, our technology.  Gordon’s work focuses on the connection between the microbehavior of individual ants and the overall behavior of the colonies themselves, and part of that research involves tracking the life cycles of individual colonies, following them year after year as they scour the desert floor for food, competing with other colonies for territory, and - once a year - mating with them.  She is a student, in other words, of a particular kind of emergent, self-organizing system.

Dig up a colony of native harvester ants and you’ll almost invariably find that the queen is missing.  To track down the colony’s matriarch, you need to examine the bottom of the hole you’ve just dug to excavate the colony: you’ll find a narrow, almost invisible passageway that leads another two feet underground, to a tiny vestibule burrowed out of the earth. There you will find the queen.  She will have been secreted there by a handful of ladies-in-waiting at the first sign of disturbance.  That passageway, in other words, is an emergency escape hatch, not unlike a fallout shelter buried deep below the West Wing.

But despite the Secret Service-like behavior, and the regal nomenclature, there’s nothing hierarchical about the way an ant colony does its thinking. ‘’Although queen is a term that reminds us of human political systems,” Gordon explains, “the queen is not an authority figure. She lays eggs and is fed and cared for by the workers.  She does not decide which worker does what.  In a harvester ant colony, many feet of intricate tunnels and chambers and thousands of ants separate the queen, surrounded by interior workers, from the ants working outside the nest and using only the chambers near the surface.  It would be physically impossible for the queen to direct every worker’s decision about which task to perform and when.” The harvester ants that carry the queen off to her escape hatch do so not because they’ve been ordered to by their leader; they do it because the queen ant is responsible for giving birth to all the members of the colony, and so it’s in the colony’s best interest - and the colony’s gene pool-to keep the queen safe. Their genes instruct them to protect their mother, the same way their genes instruct them to forage for food. In other words, the matriarch doesn’t train her servants to protect her, evolution does.

Popular culture trades in Stalinist ant stereotypes - witness the authoritarian colony regime in the animated film Antz - but in fact, colonies are the exact opposite of command economies.  While they are capable of remarkably coordinated feats of task allocation, there are no Five-Year Plans in the ant kingdom.  The colonies that Gordon studies display some of nature’s most mesmerizing decentralized behavior: intelligence and personality and learning that emerges from the bottom up.

I’m still gazing into the latticework of plastic tubing when Gordon directs my attention to the two expansive white boards attached to the main colony space, one stacked on top of the other and connected by a ramp.  (Imagine a two-story parking garage built next to a subway stop.) A handful of ants meander across each plank, some porting crumblike objects on their back, others apparently just out for a stroll. If this is the Central Park of Cordon’s ant metropolis, I think, it must be a workday.

Gordon gestures to the near corner of the top board, four inches from the ramp to the lower level, where a pile of strangely textured dust - littered with tiny shells and husks-presses neatly against the wall.  “That’s the midden,” she says. “It’s the town garbage dump.” She points to three ants marching up the ramp, each barely visible beneath a comically oversize shell. “These ants are on midden duty: they take the trash that’s left over from the food they’ve collected-in this case, the seeds from stalk grass-and deposit it in the midden pile.”

Gordon takes two quick steps down to the other side of the table, at the far end away from the ramp. She points to what looks like another pile of dust. “And this is the cemetery.” I look again, startled.  She’s right: hundreds of ant carcasses are piled atop one another, all carefully wedged against the table’s corner.  It looks brutal, and yet also strangely methodical.

I know enough about colony behavior to nod in amazement. “So they’ve somehow collectively decided to utilize these two areas as trash heap and cemetery,” I say. No individual ant defined those areas, no central planner zoned one area for trash, the other for the dead. “It just sort of happened, right?”

Cordon smiles, and it’s clear that I’ve missed something. “It’s better than that,” she says. “Look at what actually happened here: they’ve built the cemetery at exactly the point that’s furthest away from the colony. And the midden is even more interesting: they’ve put it at precisely the point that maximizes its distance from both the colony and the cemetery. It’s like there’s a rule they’re following: put the dead ants as far away as possible, and put the midden as far away as possible without putting it near the dead ants.” I have to take a few seconds to do the geometry myself, and sure enough, the ants have got it right. I find myself laughing out loud at the thought: it’s as though they’ve solved one of those spatial math tests that appear on standardized tests, conjuring up a solution that’s perfectly tailored to their environment, a solution that might easily stump an eight-year-old human.  The question is, who’s doing the conjuring?

It’s a question with a long and august history, one that is scarcely limited to the collective behavior of ant colonies.  We know the answer now because we have developed powerful tools for thinking about - and modeling - the emergent intelligence of self-organizing systems, but that answer was not always so clear.  We know now that systems like ant colonies don’t have real leaders, that the very idea of an ant “queen” is misleading. But the desire to find pacemakers in such systems has always been powerful-in both the group behavior of the social insects, and in the collective human behavior that creates a living city.

Wednesday July 29 2015

The more I read of Telling Lies About Hitler (from which I have already posted an untypically amusing excerpt), the more engrossing I am finding it.

In it, Richard J. Evans criticised some of the more casual observers of the libel case that his book described, for arguing that David Irving ought to be allowed to write what he wanted, as if the case was all about David Irving’s right to be heard.  But it was not.  It was about whether David Irving could silence one of his more prominent critics, Deborah Lipstadt, who had called him a bad historian and a Holocaust denier.

Yet, there was a reason why this error kept getting made by less than conscientious observers of this case, as Evans himself explained (p. 201):

Yet as the trial got under way, it quickly became apparent that lrving was going to find it difficult to set the agenda.  The bias of the English law of defamation brings its own perils for the unwary Plaintiff.  By placing the entire burden of proof on the defence, it allows them to turn the tables and devote the action to destroying the reputation of their accuser.  Indeed, once the defence has admitted, as Lipstadt’s did without hesitation, that the words complained of mean what they say and are clearly defamatory, justifying them in detail and with chapter and verse is the only option left to them.  A successful libel defence therefore has to concentrate, in effect, on massively defaming the person and character of the Plaintiff, the only restriction being that the defamation undertaken in court has to be along the same lines as the defamation that gave rise to the case in the first place, and that it has, of course, to be true.  The defence had to prove that Lipstadt’s accusations of Holocaust denial and historical falsification were justified in Irving’s case. Thus it was lrving, not Lipstadt, whose reputation was on the line.  By the end of the third week of the trial, as Neal Ascherson observed, the defence had thus succeeded in turning the tables, ‘as if David lrving were the defendant and Deborah Lipstadt the plaintiff’, an observation shared by other commentators too.  ‘In the relentless focus on Irving’s beliefs,’ wrote Jenny Booth in the Scotsman, ‘it was easy to forget that it was actually Lipstadt’s book which was on trial.  Increasingly it seemed that it was Irving himself.’

Having thus put himself on trial, Irving was then found to be guilty as charged.

Friday July 24 2015

I have been reading Richard J. Evans’s account of the libel trial which took place at the High Court in 2000, in which David Irving sued the American historian Deborah Lipstadt, and her publisher Penguin Books.  In one of her books, Lipstadt had called Irving a bad and dishonest non-historian, and Irving was trying to suppress this opinion.  Irving lost.

Richard J. Evans was the expert witness who did most to blow Irving’s claims to be an honest and effective historian out of the water.

The Evans book is entitled Telling Lies About Hitler.  At the end of the chapter in it entitled “In The Witness Box” (p. 231), Evans recounts a truly extraordinary moment, right at the end of the court proceedings:

And when it came to rebutting the defence charge of consorting with neo-Nazis in Germany, Irving’s habit of improvising from his prepared text led him into a fatal slip of the tongue, as he inadvertently addressed the judge as ‘Mein Fuhrer’.  Everyone in court knew that he was referring to the judge as ‘Mein Fuhrer’ from the tone of voice in which he said it.  The court dissolved into laughter.  ‘No one could believe what just happened,’ wrote one spectator.  ‘Had we imagined it? Could he have addressed the judge as “Mein Fuhrer”?’ Irving himself denied having made the slip.  But amid the laughter in court, he could be seen mumbling an apology to the judge for having addressed him in this way.  Perhaps the slip was a consequence of Irving’s unconscious identification of the judge as a benign authority figure.  Whatever the reason for it, with the laughter still ringing in its ears, the court adjourned on 15 March 2000 as the judge prepared the final version of his judgment on the case.


Thursday June 11 2015

I love learning about two-man teams, and in Paul Johnson’s short, excellent biography of Mozart (see also this earlier bit) I have been learning more about just such a team, although a very temporary and unequal one:

In the meantime, Mozart had met his great partner, the Abate Lorenzo Da Ponte.  The letter (May 7, 1783) in which he tells his father, “I have looked through at least a hundred libretti and more, but I have hardly found a single one with which I am satisfied,” also says he has met the new fashionable poet in Vienna, Da Ponte, who “has promised ... to write a new libretto for me.” The emperor had decided to abandon singspiel in 1783 and embrace Italian opera again, and he put Da Ponte in charge of the words.  Da Ponte was a converted Jew, the son of a tanner, who had embraced Christianity in 1763.  He had led a bohemian life, as a teacher, a priest, a lascivious escort of married women in the Venetian fashion, a friend of Casanova, expelled from Venice for sexual depravity, and thereafter making his living as a translator and writer in the theatrical world.  He had an extraordinary gift for languages, rather like Mozart himself but on a much more comprehensive scale, and seemed to think multilingually.

Da Ponte wrote the librettos for three Mozart operas, The Marriage of Figaro (K. 492, presented May 1,1786), Don Giovanni (K. 527, October 29, 1787), and Cosi fan tutte (K. 588, January 26, 1790), and the collaboration between the two men must be accounted one of the most successful in the history of opera.  By almost universal agreement, Figaro and Giovanni are Mozart’s two best operas, though a small minority argues that Cosi contains the best music and superb staging and that a first-class production can make it the best evening’s entertainment.

The two men worked successfuly together for two reasons. First, they both understood that creating an opera was collaboration and that composer and librettist both had to know when to give way; sometimes words must yield and sometimes notes. The truth is, of course, that Mozart was extremely adept at words as well as music, and often he took over as librettist, Da Ponte acquiescing. This raises the second point: Both men were good tempered, used to hard knocks, nasty words, and intense arguments.  They had the admirable habit, essential to success in the theater, of drawing a firm line over a disagreement, once it was resolved, and moving on quickly to the next problem.  Mozart’s good nature was absolutely genuine and went to the root of his being.  He was incapable of real malice or the desire to wound (the one exception was the archbishop, and there, too, hatred was expressed in words rather than deeds). Da Ponte was a much more flawed creature.  He was a fearful liar, to begin with, and his various volumes of memories are not to be trusted at all. His subsequent career after he left Vienna and went to New York, becoming a trader, a bookseller, a bankrupt, a poet, and other things, shows that his commitment to the stage and to music - drama, particularly - was not total.

Moreover, it is not clear that he recognized quality in opera. He thought the best composer he worked with was Vicente Martin y Soler, and he had the most fulsome praise for Antonio Salieri.  The implication was that both were Mozart’s superiors as musicians.  Both were more successful commercially at the time, and their operas were performed more frequently than Mozart’s - so were those of many other composers, at least eleven by my reckoning.  But both were so inferior to Mozart by any conceivable artistic criteria as to cast doubt on Da Ponte’s musical understanding.  And it is a significant fact that his three Mozart operas are the only ones whose libretto he wrote that have remained in the repertoire or that anyone has heard of today.

Hence the inescapable conclusion is that Mozart was the dominant figure in the collaboration.  Da Ponte understood or learned from Mozart the need to keep the drama moving by varying the musical encounters and groupings, by altering the rhythms of vocal speech, and by switching the moods.  He may even have understood the great discovery in the writing of opera that we owe to Mozart - the way in which character can be created, transformed, altered, and emphasized by entirely musical means taking possession of the sense of words.  But the magic touch is always provided by Mozart as music dramatist.

Paul Johnson on Mozart and Da Ponte
Paul Johnson on what the young Mozart was up against
Richard J. Evans on how evidence can become more significant over time
Marc Morris on how the Bayeux Tapestry ought not to exist
Paul Kennedy on centimetric radar
Peter Thiel on how humans and computers complement each other
Marc Morris on medieval evidence (there’s more of it than you might think)
Matt Ridley on how technology leads science and how that means that the state need not fund science
Dominic Frisby on the Hype Cycle
On the rights and wrongs of me posting bits from books (plus a bit about Rule Utilarianism)
How Bill Bryson on white and black paint helps to explain the Modern Movement in Architecture
Chippendale without Rannie
Bill Bryson on the miracle of crop rotation
Postrel goes for Gray
Self-healing concrete
JK Rowling describes two rich girls
Quota quote
Christopher Seaman on conducting
3D printed baby in the womb
Don’t judge a new technology by its first stumbling steps
Alex on Quentin
Algernon Sidney sends for Micklethwait because Micklethwait is wise, learned, diligent, and faithful
New apostrophe-shaped footbridge in Hull
Lighter blogging here but not none
76 operas and a monument in the wrong place for Hermann the German
Emmanuel Todd quoted and Instalanched
Richard Dawkins on university debating games
Alex Ross on Hollywood film scores
Professor C. Northcote Parkinson on the Edifice Complex
Alex Ross on Sibelius
Lawrence H. White on the Scottish experience of free banking
“I will cause a boy that driveth a plough to know more of the scriptures than thou dost.”
John Carey on Shakespeare and the high-art/ popular-art distinction
Official bias
Switching from dumb bombing to smart bombing
“I’ll build it with explosive bolts connecting the wings to the fuselage …”
If the Jews have been running the world they haven’t been doing it very successfully
Terence Kealey on the Wright brothers and their patent battles
Ed Smith on how baseball defeated cricket in America
Understanding is the booby prize exclamation mark
Will China fail?
A dreadful age
Richard Dawkins on the Muhammad cartoons affair
Is Jeremy Paxman a closet libertarian?