Best avoided

Thomas Hoerber, “Hayek vs. Keynes, a Battle of Ideas” ( Reaktion Books, London 2017) E. 20

This book claims to be a contribution to the history of economic thought ( p. 7  ) but since the author is apparently unaware that differing understandings of the nature of the trade/ business cycle was central to the debate between Keynes and Hayek, it is, in my view, a less than completely successful exercise.

Philip Shenon on the JFK assassination.

Philip Shenon,  ” A Cruel and Shocking Act, the secret history of the Kennedy Assassination.” ( New York, 2013 )

Dealey Plaza, where Occam’s razor is needed most

Far too many books have been written about the assassination of JFK . Indeed I gather that in total no less than twenty eight different gunmen have been identified in Dealey Plaza by various authors. If this was just another bonkers conspiracy book it would be best to ignore it.

In fact though it is interesting for two reasons. First, Shenon, who has also written about the Commission that looked into 9/11, has obviously made a profound and detailed study of the Warren Commission’s internal workings. The Commission, headed by Chief Justice  Earl Warren, has always known to have been a bit of a shambles which relied far too much on the information provided by the FBI. What I had not known though before I browsed through Shenon’s account, is how disgraceful the it was in other ways. Apparently one of its senior staffers even  tried to seduce Marina Oswald- then an attractive widow! And there were also more serious lapses.

While the Warren Commission certainly reached the right conclusion about the events in Dallas- namely that Oswald was not part of a wide conspiracy. Nevertheless Shenon may be on firm ground when he suggests that not enough was done to investigate some important leads which suggested that Oswald had been influenced by left wingers who he had met when he paid a brief visit Mexico City some weeks before he opened fire.

The Warren Commission took the view that Oswald’s trip to Mexico had been essentially inconsequential- nothing much had happened there except that Oswald had failed to get the visas he had wanted which would have enabled him to travel to Cuba and the Soviet Union. We will never now know the facts, but Shenon provides fairly convincing evidence that Oswald may have had a brief affair with the junior Cuban diplomat who handled his visa application, that she introduced him to a group of anti American students; and that he may have convinced himself that he would be welcomed back into this group if he proved himself worthy of their attention. Shenon implies that it was to do this, and perhaps to win himself a lover, that he killed President Kennedy when the opportunity unexpectedly presented itself a six weeks later.

All this is, of course, far, far, too vague to rank as history or anything like it. The woman concerned denies that she had a fling with Oswald, and the story of Oswald presence at a “Twist party” where he is alleged to have been seen in the company of Mexican/ Cuban leftists could well just be the creation of someone’s imagination. But then again, some such course of events does explain Oswald’s actions after the assassination. Were was Oswald headed when he fled from the Book Depository building?Was he- like rocket man- on a suicide mission? Or did he have a plan? Was he headed to back to Mexico and the “friends” he had met there? Shenon describes how the suggestion that he was trying to get to Mexico was nearly included in the Warren Commission’s report, but was  excluded from the final version.

The best that can be said is that Shenon’s book raises some interesting possibilities. However it should not be despised like so many of the other idiotic publications about the assassination. At the very least Shenon does at least ask the right questions, questions that have been ignored too often both by those with a conspiracy to sell and those who have tried to debunk them. The deep point that he makes is, I think, that in respect of the assassination, and other matters too, we should be thinking not so much about plots, but about contexts. Future historians will have to make use of Shenon’s book, and not just for what it tells us about the Warren Commission, interesting though that is.

NOTE: “The Daily Mail” should be ashamed of itself for giving publicity to an absurd theory that identifies Jackie Kennedy as one of the assassins. Even by the standards of planet tabloid….. 


The news from Zimbabwe.

Since we have previously commented here about events in Zimbabwe it seems only right to say something about the coup, or rather the attempted “correction”, that has just taken place in Harare.

1] The situation is complicated and fast moving. There is no certainty about either what has happened or about what will happen. That said, the following thoughts suggest themselves

2] There is no doubt that Bob had it coming. In his first years in power he showed that he had the capacity to govern Zimbabwe well. He could have turned Zimbabwe into a beacon of prosperity and hope in central Africa. And he was some of the way to doing this, as was widely admitted by quite conservative whites in South Africa when I was there for about six months in 1989. There was real hope in the air. Bob’s failure was then one pure corruption. He has brought needless misery on the people of Zimbabwe. His fall will be fully deserved.

3] However, coups are a bad business. There have been far too many of them in Africa since the sixties. They may save a country from a tyrant as in this case, but they always set a bad example. Apart from all the other obvious moral,political, and legal considerations investors do not like seeing tanks on the streets.

4] The auguries for the future of Zimbabwe may be better than they were before recent events, but they are still not good. Well informed observers are expressing doubts about the motives and characters of those who are trying to depose Mugabe. Their record is unimpressive, and our jubilation about their efforts should, consequently, be muted.

5]  The best hope now is for a rapid return to legality, and for free and fair elections to take place. But here the matter becomes unusually complicated. Bob has unexpectedly “won” elections in the past. He is the wiliest old fox in the business, and as of this moment it doesn’t look as if he wants to go quietly.

6] The people of Zimbabwe have suffered enough. In the long run the only way in which Zimbabwe can release its huge economic potential is through the rule of law, democratic institutions, and private enterprise. All other proposals will end in further disaster and humiliation. The misrule of Robert Mugabe will not have been completely wasted if it teaches this lesson.


Ciao, ciao, choo choo!

By Michael Dwyer

In the nineteen eighties Sean Barret, professor of transport economics in Trinity and old friend of the EBI suggested that the multimillion pound state subvention to CIE be discontinued and the money used instead to buy everyone in the Republic a car.

He spoke of course half in jest and whole in earnest. What was a good idea thirty years ago seems like a better idea today. Then we had bad surfaces, narrow carriageways and no motorways. The train to Dublin took about the same for me as the car and less than the snail paced bus.

Today the train journey has not shortened by a minute but the road journey has halved in time. The combination of motorway, express routes and bus lanes mean I can be in the city centre in seventy five minutes travelling in a very comfortable coach with Wi-Fi naturally.

We all love a train. It is a wonderful way to go from A to B. It can be relaxing. The scenery on the Dublin Rosslare route I cannot recommend highly enough. Hell you can even have a little drink. It’s just not a very efficient way.

This is a Victorian technology and it is time for it to go the way of the child sweep and the gentleman cricketer. Ireland has never been well adapted to rail. The Island is too small and the population is too dispersed to create truly economic intercity routes. The commuter routes around the larger population centres, may, perhaps, be viable but that should be looked at with real transparent costings. As for the rest, well today with our expensive road network, they represent cost without even the redeeming feature of social utility. We could always turn them into a transisland bicycle network. That’s nineteenth century tech. that seems to be going strong without costing the taxpayer a dime.

Irish leaves at their best. These though are in Co. Kilkenny. The colours in the autumn of 2016 were particularly fine, this years less good, although above average.

Two further points, in the first place Mr. Dwyer really does speak Italian!  Secondly, I publish his piece with some reluctance. As the proud user of free travel card, I love being wafted through the enchantments of the Irish countryside. The journey from Arklow to Dublin is particularly beautiful at this time of the year because of the finely coloured foliage alongside which the train travels, ! I love too the taste of the Danish pastry and the fine coffee which is available on the train- for which, though, I do have to pay. Mostly though I love the lordly sense that someone else is paying for my indulgence- so perhaps Mr. Dwyer is making a moral point too!   




A forgotten gem.

“There is something curiously moving and impressive about the mediaeval schoolmen. From their cloistered retreats to which learning had been driven by the tumults of the Dark Ages, they emerge into the sunlight bustle of town and university, exuberant with vitality, filled with enormous and zestful intellectual appetite.”

Dorothy L. Sayers

I first came across the name of Canon D J B Hawkins when reading Antony Flew’s “ God and Philosophy” and formed the view from Flew’s treatment of his work that he was a philosopher  who had little to offer except an archaic Thomism. Gradually however I kept finding his book “A Sketch of Mediaeval Philosophy” ( London, 1946 )  listed in such places as the bibliography to Father Copleston’s  “Aquinas” ( where curiously the date of its publication is wrongly given ),  so I asked John Wyse Jackson of the Zozimus Bookshop ( among our links ) to find me a copy- which turns out to have been a wise decision. The book is a delight

Indeed I would go further.  It’s a classic. Canon Hawkins  turns out to have been a Catholic priest who ministered at Godalming in Surrey for many years. He never held any academic position, but wrote several works of philosophy from a position of moderate Thomism before his death in 1964  His “Sketch of Mediaeval Philosophy” was, however by far his most widely read book, and his only venture into the history of ideas. Perhaps because it was a one off it expresses the full fruits of engagement with his subject. Too often works of scholarship  are almost by implication the result of self-conscious research undertaken for the very purpose of writing the book in question. These have then a certain artificial feel about them. As a result one often gets the impression that the author knows about his subject ( or at least what his sources have told him about his subject ),  but that he does not truly KNOW his subject, in that he or she has not fully made the subject their own. This is precisely the sense that one DOES NOT get from Hawkins’ book.  Hawkins was obviously an enthusiast for his subject. Indeed, as I read,  I couldn’t help suspecting  that he can hardly have had time for anything else. I sensed indeed that his enthusiasm was such that his parishioners may have felt neglected. His final chapter includes a revealing cameo  in which he pictures himself turning over the pages of the more obscure late scholastics in the hope of finding yet more to read- for he must read everything else!

Hawkins though, was no mere antiquarian. He thought like a philosopher; that is to say he obviously kept turning over in his mind the issues raised by his reading.  For him there were as many questions as certainties in philosophy. And he relished this same tendency in the thinkers that he wrote about. For Hawkins the story begins with the tragic late Roman Boethius whose “Consolations of Philosophy” exerted an extraordinary influence in the Middle Ages,  and was indeed translated into English by  Chaucer among others.  Boethius was a late  Roman senator in the employment of a barbarian king. But he lost a court intrigue, and as a result was first imprisoned and then executed. It was while he was imprisoned, but probably before he knew what his ultimate fate would be, that he wrote his famous book. More recent scholars have wondered why it was that, if Boethius was really a Christian, that he should have taken so little comfort from his faith, as his book implies. The reason though is not far to seek. His book is about “The Consolations of Philosophy”, and not The Consolations of Faith. Boethius, in effect, does what it says on the tin.

A minor point, you may perhaps think. But this would not be a sound judgement. Boethius was an extremely influential figure who linked the ancient and mediaeval worlds. Consequently the distinction which he made between the realm of faith and reason was to become far more important than he can ever have imagined. This meant that there could be an active debate between the various different schools of philosophy within the context of the Christian faith. By our standards the church was authoritarian. But it was not totalitarian.

Hawkins grants quite freely that towards the end of the Middle Ages  there were thinkers who under the influence nominalism had abandoned Christianity and who merely pretended to believe for obvious pragmatic reasons  But these he insists were very much in a minority. For the vast bulk of thinkers during the middle ages Christianity was at the core of everything that they did. But their thinking was not restricted simply to reiterating the contents of their faith. Rather they wished to understand what they believed, and they used all the tools available to them to do so.  And in order to do this they explored widely and thought freely within the context of their Catholic faith. It was this openness to debate that lay behind the whole flowering of Christian thought in the Middle Ages.

While the revival of Thomism from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards was a development of great importance  (the full significance of which we may not yet have seen fully ), but it has had the disadvantage of  making it appear that the Middle Ages were philosophically  less divided, less rich and less interesting than was really the case. Aquinas was certainly the flag ship of the fleet. But he was not alone. Hawkins was an unapologetic Thomist. For him the writings of Thomas were a triumphant synthesis of Christian and Aristotelian thought, with an enduring relevance. But this did not prevent him from being able to present the other thinkers of the period in a vivid way. Indeed they come bouncing out of his pages like characters in a play.

There are , it is true, moments when the pace slackens and one begins to feel that one is reading a telephone directory of minor figures. But these lapses are few. Hawkins has the knack of being able to catch the spirit of the people he writes about. He captures the tragedy of Boethius, the oddity of Duns Scotus,  the over-confidence of Anselm ( he thinks that the ontological argument was a bridge too far )- , the romance- and the seriousness-of Abelard, and , of course, the massive solidity of Aquinas.

For me though the central message Hawkins’ was that the greatest achievement of the mediaeval theological class was its right understanding of the importance of politics. This is of especial importance today, when on the one hand our voters fail to vote in record numbers, and yet on the other there seem to be innumerable fanatics on both left and right who can’t seem to think of anything else but politics. Mediaeval man knew much better than this. Politics was important. But it was not all-important. Man’s true home was elsewhere. Then the role of politics was circumscribed by the metaphysical and moral order within which humanity was located. In other words, just as Boethius attributed a sphere to philosophy and sphere to faith, so too the mediaeval consensus attributed a sphere to the church and a sphere to the state.

Although historians of ideas tend to think that the mediaeval dispute about universals was of the greater interest, the tussle over the respective rights of the church and the empire probably had more enduring institutional significance than the metaphysical argument. Few people in the Middle Ages would have taken an extreme view of the case. It was all a matter proportion, and of, as we would say today, where the line should be drawn. Put differently, the crucial point was that there were two legitimate spheres, the boundaries between which were the subject of discussion and of course compromise. This in turn had deep implications both for the Middle Ages themselves, and for their legacy to us. It is, for example, the existence of differing spheres in our culture today that makes it so difficult for followers of Islam to integrate successfully into our culture. Above all it explains both the origins of our freedoms and our need to defend them from those who would remove any spiritual considerations from our political order. No wonder Hawkins quotes Lord Acton as saying that Aquinas was the first Whig- ( unlike Dr. Johnson who said that  that honour belonged to the devil!)

While Hawkins is most immediately relevant when he is hinting at the political implications of the views he is describing, he is, to my mind, most disturbing when he describes the way in which the wisdom of the Middle Ages was first abandoned, and then simply forgotten. It is true that late scholasticism had become tired. Perhaps under the influence of the Black Death the confidence detected by Dorothy Sayers was replaced by what V.H.H. Green called ” a kind of wintry pessimism.” Moreover scholasticism became far too closely associated with the Ptolemaic view of the universe  which turned out to be wrong. Likewise its focus on metaphysics was in conflict with the greater emphasis on human nature- which was such a pronounced feature of both Reformation and Renaissance. Nevertheless the deep wisdom of the middle ages was not refuted. It was allowed, even encouraged, to die of neglect.  The enthusiasts for the new learning and the Reformers  each had their own strong motives for ignoring what had gone immediately before them. And neither showed any hesitation about the ethics or the wisdom of making fun of what they did not want to understand and had not much studied. Instead they imposed what amounted to a Philosophical Correctness on the culture of the West. Nor was the Enlightenment any better or more broad minded . So let us not then make a similar mistake: for as Hawkins concludes, “there is much more than the satisfaction of historical curiosity in making the acquaintance of Bonaventure and Duns Scotus and, above all, Thomas Aquinas.”

NOTES: Also to hand, acquired for me by John Wyse Jackson, is  S. J Curtis “A Short History of Western Philosophy in the Middle Ages” ( London, 1950 ), and it is from the Dorothy Sayers’ preface to this from which I have drawn the quotation which heads this piece.

The brief quote from V.H.H. Green comes from his “Renaissance and Reformation ” ( London, 1970 ) p.18  For the final paragraph I have raided Joseph Rickaby S.J. ” Scholasticism” ( London, 1908 ). Of the relationship between scholasticism and science he writes  “No one who has not read much of the Scholastic authors can conceive how far the Ptolemaic astronomy entered into their psychology, their metaphysics, and even their theology.” But he insists that “Certainly Scholasticism does not stand of fall with the Ptolemaic conception…One may remain a good Scholastic and abolish all that.” p. 66.

For an up to date account of Aquinas see Edward Feser, “Aquinas, a Beginner’s Guide” ( London, 2009 ) which contains a very full bibliography of the more recent literature. No one though even vaguely interested in the thought of the middle ages should ignore the work of  Etienne Gilson. I started with his “God and Philosophy” ( Yale, Mass. 1941 ) although it also deals with more recent thought.