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Fortinbras Armstrong

Fortinbras Armstrong's Journal
Fortinbras Armstrong's Journal
June 25, 2014

As W. E. B. Du Bois said, Marx "put his finger squarely upon our difficulties."

He explained the problems of his day very well. Marx did several things. He is considered to be one of the founders of modern social sciences, along with Émile Durkheim and Max Weber. Unlike many other intellectuals of his time, he insisted that social theories must be examined through a scientific method to see if they world work. Marx is also notable for writing mostly for the poor and disenfranchised, whereas his contemporaries wrote mostly for fellow intellectuals. A talented economist, Marx helped the world understand capitalism better than anyone since Adam Smith -- for example, he was the first to explain why the previously feudal countries of Europe became industrial economies and capitalist powerhouses. Much of what he wrote about how capitalism works stands up to scrutiny close to 200 years later, leading some to call him the father of economic history. The study of sociology was also highly influenced by Marx's writings.

Although many people today think of him as a dangerously misguided individual, the modern understanding of social science and economics - both liberal and conservative - owes an enormous debt to him and his theories. Similarly, his critiques of capitalism and advocacy of communism seem less applicable in the modern world (not that he is no longer relevant). However at the time he was writing, the conditions for the working class, especially in England (where he wrote Capital), were truly appalling, and much of the ideas and movements that would improve and reform it -- and, ironically, blunt so much of communism's power -- were still considered seditious. A year before he began his studies at the University of Bonn, England transported several men to Australia for forming a union.

Ultimately, what Marx didn't reckon on was the dynamism of democracy in order to effect change. Remember, Marx was writing during a time when there was no minimum wage, no worker protection, no welfare system, no laws against child labor, not anti-trust or anti-monopoly laws, no laws demanding truthful advertising, no laws banning unsafe products, no laws guaranteeing rights to women and minorities (and, in a lot of cases, for Europeans and men, too), and, for most of the world, no voting rights for most people. We have come a long way since Marx's time, and he is arguably vindicated by history.

A good way to understand Marx is that he was a lot like a medical doctor of his time: By the end of Marx's life, medicine had discovered germ theory and understood what caused disease, but although it could now prevent the spread of illness (through quarantine, sterilization of operating rooms, and good public health/sanitation policy), when it came to treating people who were already ill, the doctors couldn't do much better than their grandfathers. Marx figured out what was wrong with the new industrial capitalism, but as far as how to handle it, he couldn't do much better than proposing the kind of utopian socialism that had been presented in the early 19th century, rather than the somewhat odd and piecemeal form of modern social democracy.

June 3, 2014

Mostly books on spiritual growth

The Confessions of St. Augustine, which details how he came to faith. I was also struck by Augustine's quite graceful Latin style. (The translation by Henry Chadwick is good if you do not read Latin.)

Apologia Pro Vita Sua -- either "a defense of his life" or "an explanation of his life" -- by Cardinal Newman. In the 1860s, Charles Kingsley (best known for the novel The Water-Babies) attacked Newman for repeatedly saying one thing at one time, and another -- even the opposite -- at another time. Newman wrote about how he grew spiritually and intellectually, explaining how and why he came to change his mind on various subjects. Considerably later, and in quite different circumstances, G. K. Chesterton wrote, "A man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend." This echoes throughout Newman's Apologia.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship. About what the Christian is called to do if his or her claim to being a Christian is genuine. Bonhoeffer himself was executed by the Nazis, basically because he took his Christianity seriously. The section on "cheap grace" is particularly noteworthy.

Several books by Thomas Merton, especially Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which taught me much about Christian mysticism; and Zen and the Birds of Appetite, which introduced me to Zen.

One not on spiritual growth is Papal Sin by Garry Wills. This is about honesty and the lack of it in the Vatican. It confirmed many of my own ideas -- basically that all too often, the papacy does not teach or preach honestly. I know Wills, and he and I see eye-to-eye on this subject. (Wills, interestingly enough, is quite conservative politically. But I forgive him his lapse in judgment.)

Profile Information

Gender: Male
Hometown: Suburban Chicago
Home country: UK
Current location: Suburban Chicago
Member since: Thu Apr 12, 2012, 09:54 AM
Number of posts: 4,473

About Fortinbras Armstrong

Retired computer security expert/programmer. Married for 40 years, three sons, two dogs. Interested in history, music, religion -- mostly Catholic -- and cooking. MA in History of Religion (Harvard) and MS in Computer Science (U of Wisconsin).
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