Audio-book Review
           By Chet Yarbrough


   The Constitution of Knowledge (A Defense of Truth)

By Jonathan Rauch

Narrated by: Traber Burns

Jonathan Rauch (American author, journalist, freelance writer for The Economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.)

The structure of knowledge is the subject of Jonathan Rauch’s “…Constitution of Knowledge”.  What may come as a surprise to some is Rauch’s argument that knowledge is a social construct, not an inviolable fact or truth. Knowledge grows from tests of society.

As Karl Popper, a highly respected philosopher of science noted, knowledge can only be found through pursuit of its falsification.

The fear that accompanies Rauch’s argument about knowledge, and Popper’s belief about science’s truth means a lie can be as influential as truth. The two greatest twenty first century examples are Trump and Vladimir Putin.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they hold a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

All human beings lie. The problem is those with preeminent power use the lie to lead others to believe what society’s tests show to be false. The problem is distinguishing a lie from societal truth. A lie is never as evident as it is with Pinocchio’s nose.

Truths should not be based on a singular view of reality.  Lies of leadership in recent history have led to tragic interventions by America, France and most recently, Russia in sovereign countries like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and today’s Ukraine.

The great fear accompanying this view of knowledge is that truth only reveals itself as past events. It is exhibited in the death of innocent bystanders that follow leader’s lies. World wars prove how the truth is never known in real time, only in history. Society’s tests of Trump and Putin show how destructive a leader’s lies can be in both democratic and autocratic nations.

Rauch both personalizes damage that lies have on individuals and society with his experience as a gay person and combatant against cancel culture, violence, sexism, and racism. Though Rauch’s explanation notes many examples of what is wrong with society, he ends with a degree of optimism about how one can deal with leadership’ lies.

Words matter but if they don’t lead to violence, they can be logically addressed by society and rejected for their distortion of perceived truth. Rauch is careful to explain truth is a perception, not a fact or necessarily a truth. As is shown by science, the human brain does not record facts but recreates events that fit a human’s perception of reality.

What is true is tested in Popper’s theory of facts that are tested by search for falsifiability.

If a tree falls in the forest and a tape recorder records the sound, one is tempted to believe a fact has been found. If that experiment is repeated many times by different people, the falling tree makes noise, whether a human is there or not, is likely to be true. However, it is a sound that remains a perception. The difference is it has been tested many times by society with the same result.

Cancel culture is when there is a public boycott of people or organizations because of an interest group’s belief. If a group’s belief is challenged by perceptions and experience of a broader society, cancel culture can be, at least, ameliorated.

Rauch shows himself to be a free speech believer. One presumes he endorses all free speech if it does not induce or insight violence. This is not to suggest words spoken or written are not harmful, but they are not physically injuring another.

Attacking a person physically for words spoken is reprehensible but attacking an idea is societies’ way of revealing the truth and acquiring knowledge.

After listening to Rauch’s explanation of what knowledge is and how it is acquired, one wishes a signal could be sent when one is knowingly lying, e.g., something like Pinocchio’s nose.


Audio-book Review
           By Chet Yarbrough


American Philosophy (A Love Story)

By: John Kaag

Narrated by: Josh Bloomberg

John Kaag, (Author, Professor of Philosophy at UMass Lowell)

John Kaag’s view of romantic love seems slightly askew when taken in the context of his two books, published two years apart.  “American Philosophy” is published in 2016 while “Hiking with Nietzsche” is published in 2018.  Having listened to both, one finds “Hiking with Nietzsche” belies the conclusion of romantic love characterized in “American Philosophy”.

In “American Philosophy, Kaag professes understanding the harm done to romantic love by male self-absorption and then ignores that realization in “Hiking with Nietzsche”.

Kaag’s male self-absorption is flaunted in “Hiking with Nietzsche”.  Kaag seems quite dismissive of his second wife in his “Hiking…” adventure.

Kaag seems mostly in love with himself and his pursuit of philosophy. 

Kaag becomes an organizer of a library of first editions for the Hocking family.  The descendants wish to donate the volumes to a library of their choosing but the contents must be organized for appraisal purposes.

Kaag ensconces himself in Hocking’s library of 10,000 books with many philosophical “first edition” writings. 

The story of “American Philosophy” is about the life and times of William Ernest Hocking and his 400-acre estate in New Hampshire. 

William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966, American idealist philosopher.).

400 Acre Hocking Estate in New Hampshire

Kaag accepts the task. The library becomes a refuge from his first marriage which ends in divorce. As Kaag reviews the philosophies of greater and lesser philosophers like Emerson, Royce, Kant, and Hocking, he reflects on his failed marriage.  He concludes his failure is self-inflicted. 

As Kaag begins cataloging the 10,000 volumes, he is joined by a fellow philosopher (who becomes his 2nd wife) from a university for which they teach. 

Hocking library on the 400 Acre Estate.

What Kaag realizes is philosophy looks to the supernatural and, in its pursuit, romantic love suffers.  Kaag exhibits eating, sleeping, and drinking disorders that reflect a self-absorption that damages romantic love.  This is an ironic realization because it seems Kaag celebrates romantic love but cannot partake of it. 

Society treats women as less equal than men.  Oddly, Kaag shows understanding without behavioral modification.  This seems societies’ tragic flaw. 

Women are the equal of men, but society does not treat them equally.  The consequence is the loss of romantic love and women’s rightful place in society. The resurrection of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Putin’s militancy, Middle Eastern, Eastern, and Western society show the likelihood of change seems remote, if not unlikely.

Some argue Kaag’s book is a celebration of romantic love, but it is not.  Kaag’s story is about male societies’ inability to overcome the history of misogyny.  The implication is when women are treated as equal, society will change.  Reviewing Kaag’s two books suggests the world is not ready. 


Audio-book Review
           By Chet Yarbrough


Bitwise (A Life in Code)

By: David Auerbach

Narrated by David Marantz

David Auerbach (Author, software engineer, writer for various publications.)

David Auerbach wishes not to be categorized. However, Auerbach is an author, ivy league graduate, computer geek, software coder, gamer, philosopher, and more. The point is categorization does not explain the real Auerbach. Auerbach offers a wide-ranging conception of what is real and not real in the world.

Auerbach criticizes categorization because it is fictive.  His example is the wrong-headed categorization of sexuality.  What social or cultural value can come from such categorization? Auerbach notes at one point Facebook insists users identify their sexual predilection from a list of hundreds of categories.

Auerbach pursues the concept of what is real in “Bitwise”.  He fails to clearly define real but identifies what real is not.  Real is not simply what the mind’s eye beholds and it is not the mathematics of reproducible experiment.  There is a concreteness to real in Auerbach’s belief.  However, real remains a mystery because it is to be revealed in a future not yet written.

To Auerbach, real lies somewhere within the triptych of human’ thought, mind, and language. 

Auerbach’s philosophical argument for real is partly supported by the evolution of scientific understanding of the world.  Newton discovered a partial truth about the physics of moving bodies.  Einstein expanded Newton’s partial truth with a more comprehensive understanding of space and time.  Einstein’s truth is changing with the discovery of quantum mechanics.  All of these discoveries came from the interplay of human’ thought, mind, and language. This triptych gives concreteness to what is real.

Auerbach questions the advance of software algorithms as a method for finding truth about what is real.  An algorithm is only a tool of human’ thought, mind, and language.  Auerbach infers there may be a time when a computer becomes more human with the ability to define reality but not until they are more than algorithmic machines.  That, of course, raises many more questions.

An algorithm is a set of calculations meant to define reality or conduct problem solving operations when in fact they neither define reality nor solve anything. 

A revelation one has from Auerbach’s “Bitwise” is that gamers have become important to a younger generation because algorithms offer insight to the concreteness of existence.  One can experiment with life’s outcomes without consequence in the real world. 

Auerbach gives the example of a gamers use of a nuclear war game to show how world diplomacy decisions lead to world conflagration.  Early versions are refined but remain blunt predictive instruments that only mimic human’ thought, mind, and language.

In his early career, Auerbach’s software experience comes from working with Microsoft.  He suggests the stewardship of Balmer diminished Microsoft’s innovative history.  Auerbach leaves  Microsoft to join Google.  He finds Google to be a more cutting-edge software developer by recognizing the value of data gathering and mining.

“Bitwise” is a clarion call to the public.  Big Brother is here.  It has the face of Google and the power of a nation-state. 

The near future is dependent on software coding.  The long future is dependent on human’ thought, mind, and language.


Audio-book Review
  By Chet Yarbrough


The Big Questions of Philosophy

By: David Kyle Johnson, Professor


   By Professor Johnson

David Kyle Johnson (Lecturer, Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania)

David Johnson’s first thirty lectures revolve around proof of God, the definition of reason, knowledge, truth, and the existence of free will.  Those lectures, though logically consistent, are a slog and may cause listeners to stop listening.  However, the last six chapters of Johnson’s lectures are rewarding summaries of government philosophy and the meaning of life.   

Johnson questions several arguments about God’s existence by revealing their logic and evidentiary failings.  Johnson defines reason, truth, knowledge, and testimony as falsifiable evidence for God’s existence.  He challenges arguments about the existence of soul, and what it means to be free.  He explains the significance of mind and body, good and evil, and personal identity.  Along the way, he defines good and evil with various side trips showing how we “ought” rather than “how” we really live.  Johnson’s attacks many, if not all, substantive philosophical arguments for the existence of God.  His noted weaknesses of many philosophical beliefs about God, truth, and knowledge are mind numbing.   

The first two thirds of Johnson’s philosophical analysis conclude God’s existence is an unverifiable truth, solely dependent on the chimera of faith.

In contrast, Johnson’s summary of government philosophy and the meaning of life are both entertaining, and informative.

There is a good deal of bias in this review because of personal interest.  The first thirty chapters may be of more interest to some, but his analysis of the history of economic and political theory remind one of how great it is to be steeped in western culture.

Lecture 31 one asks—Should Government Exist?   Johnson suggests the alternative for government is anarchy.  He offers three categories of anarchy, i.e., theoretical, serious, and violent.  All three question governments’ moral authority.

From an American perspective, the only substantive concern is with the category of serious anarchy.  Serious anarchy is Johnson’s category of what is known as Libertarianism in the United States.  

Rand Paul, US Senator from Kentucky

The most famous American Libertarians are Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Thomas Sowell, the Koch brothers, Steve Forbes, and Peter Thiel.  Essentially, they believe government should be restricted to defense of the country with citizens responsible for their own actions.  The only law should be moral law because government-imposed law restricts personal autonomy.  There should be no government regulation that infringes on personal autonomy in social, or economic policy.

Lecture 32 asks—What Justifies a Government?  Johnson recalls luminaries like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Hobbes viewed citizens as naturally power hungry and that government is necessary to protect citizens from being harmed by acquisitive neighbors.  Locke suggests citizens enter a social contract with a government when they choose to become members of a nation-state and by contract will not be allowed to infringe on a neighbor’s freedom of choce, liberty, or pursuit of happiness.  In the case of Locke, laws are passed to protect citizens by a government Republic that represents the will of the people who vote for them.  Rousseau agrees with Locke but insists on direct democracy to establish any laws meant to protect citizens.  Each of these men influence the founding fathers in writing an American constitution.

Lecture 33 asks—How Big Should Government Be?  Johnson summarizes the economic philosophies of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes who shape much of what American government has become. 

The economy of America is largely based on Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”.  Though many know of Adam Smith, few seem to have closely read “Wealth of Nations” to clearly understand what he said about economic growth.  There have been many interpretations of “the invisible hand” that range from an extreme that suggests self-interest is all that matters in an economy to price-controlling when competition is driving businesses into bankruptcy.  Neither extreme represents Smith’s belief in “the invisible hand”.  Neither self-interest nor competition is all that matters for an economy to grow.  Smith tempers self-interest by arguing it cannot be adhered to at the expense of the common good.  Smith endorses competition when it lowers prices for the public.  However, Smith notes monopolies created from aggressive acquisition of competitors restricts competition and infringes on the common good.

Karl Marx addresses the threat of capitalism making slaves of workers who are undercompensated for their labor that only benefits entrepreneurs who own businesses without fairly compensating their employees. 

History has shown the weakness of Marx’s argument.  Labor organizes to increase compensation for labor.  More than labor costs determine value.  There is the willing buyer and seller that determine the cost of any business’s survival.  Marx ignores too many other variables when valuing labor without addressing risk to entrepreneurs, the cost of doing business, and the inherent inventiveness of capitalist self-interest.

John Maynard Keynes is a preeminent economic theorist who recognizes the weaknesses of capitalism.  Capitalism engenders economic crashes, panics, recessions, and depressions.   

Johnson notes Keynesian economic theory ameliorates those threats by deficit spending when “the invisible hand” fails the common good.  Johnson suggests Keynes offers a middle ground between Smith and Marx.  The inevitable problem is knowing where the line is to be drawn between government overreach and an “invisible hand” which benefits the common good.

The next two lectures address the limits of liberty and societal fairness.  America is among the richest countries in the world, but homelessness seems to grow with each passing year.  Having traveled some, it appears America is doing a poorer job of dealing with poverty and homelessness than more autocratic countries like China.  One picks China as a contrast because it has a population of 1.4 billion versus 320 million in America.  The wealth of American citizens far outweighs the wealth of Chinese citizens.  U.S. per-capita income is estimated to be 5.78 times higher than China’s. 

One sees no homeless people sleeping in parks or on the sidewalks of major cities like Beijing, Hong Kong, or Guangzhou in China. America is not doing a very good job of drawing the line between government outreach and the impact of capitalist self-interest when it comes to homelessness.  This is not to argue limits to liberty in China are either better or worse than America’s ineptitude.  However, managing homelessness is a distinct societal unfairness in America.  This is a national problem that needs to be addressed by American government policy based on the welfare of its citizens.

At the end of Johnson’s lectures, one is reminded of Plato’s fictional writing about the Oracle of Delphi identifying Socrates as the wisest of Greeks. 

Socrates (Greek Philosopher, 470 BC to 399 BC.)

Plato writes that Socrates disbelieves the Oracle. He questions scholars of his time to find they know no more than him.  However, he concludes “xero katie pou den xero tipota” or “I know something that I know nothing”.   

The final chapter of Johnson’s lectures is “What is the Meaning of Life”. 

There is no definitive answer. Maybe, it is the number 42, the nonsensical conclusion of the Bible noting “The Duration of Suffering”. (It is also Douglas Adams ironic answer in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”.)


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Living with the Devil ( A Meditation on Good and Evil)

By: Stephen Batchelor

Narrated by: Stephen Batchelor

Stephen Batchelor (Author, Scottish Buddhist, teacher.)

Stephen Batchelor offers a view of religion and reality in an attempt to move beyond the “let it be” implication of a meditative life.  Batchelor places Buddhism in the context of most religions’ beliefs.  He explains Buddhism personifies the devil as a master of seven dimensions of heaven. 

The devil assigns one of the seven heaven’ disciples to inspire sin in human life.  That disciple is Mara who is directed by the devil to seduce Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism. Mara assumes the visage of a woman but fails to distract Siddhartha from “the way” and, like Christ in Christian belief, Siddhartha becomes a symbol and guide for humanity.

Image of Mara who takes the image of a woman to seduce Gautama Buddha, (Siddhartha).

Batchelor explains Buddhism is the door to “the way” which recognizes the devil as a part of life’s yin and yang.  Hardship and death are part of life.  Those seeking eternal life delude themselves.  It is not possible to have life without death.  It is not possible to have “the way”, a path without evil because evil defines good by being its opposite.  This leads to a “let it be” mentality of those who meditate on “the way”.  Batchelor is not condoning the evil of violence, destruction, or death but explains its role in defining “the way”. Therein lies a criticism by some.

Buddhist guidance is described as “the way”  by Batchelor. 

One presumes, it is the same “way” referred to in the adventures of Disney Studio’s “The Mandalorian”. 

Batchelor describes the path that most of humanity takes is deflected in the same way as a human walking with one leg shorter than another.  The path of humanity is circular which suggests why history seems to repeat itself. (To paraphrase Mark Twain–history may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.)

One who is not a Buddhist is not comforted by Batchelor’s explanation of “the way” or his acknowledged acceptance of living with the devil.  Batchelor, like Buddha, Jesus Christ, and a Divinity, may be correct in their knowledge about human life but it does not give one comfort.  It proffers fear that violence and destruction is to be tolerated by humanity because it is a part of living life as a human being. 

Batchelor implies homelessness, despair, and human degradation are incurable and acceptable because the devil’s work helps define “the way”. 

Accepting Buddhism seems to encourage meditation at the expense of human effort to give succor to those in need.  All religions and societies should be focused on social and economic equality for all.  Accepting less is failure. “The devil made me do it” is a cop out. 


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Being Peace

By: Thich Nhat Hanh

Narrated by: Edoardo Ballerrini

Thích Nhất Hạnh (Author, Buddhist Monk, Zen Master, Political Activist.)

“Being Peace” is a layman’s introduction to Buddhist belief.  Thích Nhất Hạnh offers a “let it be” philosophy of life while being a political activist.  Hanh’s philosophy of peace comes through meditation. Hanh finds through meditation human life is found to be neither good nor bad. 

There is no evil in Hanh’s world.  In one sense that reminds one of Christian’s belief in “turning the other cheek”.  The difference is that Christian’s believe there is evil in the world, and it must be punished.

Hanh tells a story of a Sudanese pirate that rapes a girl-child and throws her into the sea to drown.  Hanh suggests he could have become a Sudanese sea pirate by having experienced Sudanese poverty and depredation.  Hanh’s view is that the circumstances of life and environment create miscreants, rapists, and murderers.

Contrary to belief in evil and punishment for moral transgression, Hanh finds empathy for those who pillage, torture, murder, and rape. 

Hanh’s solution is to accept Buddhist belief in peace through meditation.  In accepting life as it is, evil doers disappear.  This is certainly an oversimplification of Hanh’s teaching. 

Hanh notes world leaders squander world resources that could be used to create and sustain peace for all people in the world.  He decries wasted dollars for military defense.  His argument is predicated on abundance that is unevenly distributed.

Hanh lives through the French and American atrocities in Vietnam.  

Hanh undoubtedly observed the senseless murder of innocents by both western powers and communists.  

Ironically, until more recently, Hanh was banned from Vietnam because of the crowds he attracted to his teaching.  Fear of competition from someone independent of the government frightens communist bureaucrats.  Hahn is now allowed in Vietnam, but his forums are restricted to small groups of believers.

Money, power, and prestige seduce the poor, middle class, and rich, whether in a democracy or autocracy.  There are few exceptions–maybe only Buddhist meditators, and Socratic philosophers–not the general public.

Hanh’s book is insightful but inadequate when measured against the innate nature of humankind.  On a personal level, one can accept the value of meditation in seeing things as they are and how they should be.  However, on a global level, it is difficult to imagine broad acceptance of meditation.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


The Committed

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

Narrated by : Francois Chau

Viet Thanh Nguyen (American author, 2016 winner of Pulitzer prize for fiction.)

“The Committed” carries forward the life of three Vietnamese blood brothers introduced in “The Sympathizer”, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s earlier novel.  Nguyen’s story begins during America’s Vietnam war. 

In the beginning of “The Committed”, the main character, Vo Danh, arrives in Paris with his blood brother Bon.  Their first night’s stay is with a  communist sympathizer who is Vo Dahn’s aunt.  Bon is incensed by the aunt’s support of communism. Bon’s job as a Vietnamese counterspy in America was to murder communist sympathizers.  Bon wishes to leave immediately, but Vo Danh calms him down and they stay the night. However, Vo Danh continues to visit his aunt and for a time lives with her. 

The main character of “The Committed” believes all social beliefs one commits oneself to are corrupted by human nature.  To Vo Danh, his aunt is just who she is committed to be, without being either good or bad.

Vo Danh and Bon leave the next morning to find jobs at a Vietnamese restaurant near the Eiffel tower.  The restaurant is owned by a mobster.  They are hired and choose to rent a room from the mobster.  Bon mostly leaves Nguyen’s story until the last chapters of the book.  He chooses to keep a low profile as a restaurant employee. 

Vo Dahn takes an entirely different path. Vo Dahn becomes a customer procurer and seller for the mobster’s drug business.

Vo Danh’s experience in a Vietnam re-education camp taught him to believe in nothing.  That teaching came from his third blood brother who is commandant of the camp during the Vietnam war. 

This third blood brother is a communist sympathizer in name only.  Before becoming  camp commandant, this third blood brother is badly disfigured by an American napalm attack. He realizes Democracy’s liberation of Vietnam from communism is a meaningless chimera.  In that realization, he re-educates Vo Danh to understand communism, authoritarianism, and democracy are fictions. 

Re-education camps are a euphemism for detention and torture.

Committed beliefs about government mean nothing.  One’s first thought is that the third brother is simply a nihilist.  Vo Dahn understands something different.  In sum, the commandant teaches Vo Dahn that commitment to any ideological belief is a trap.  Even in accepting his blood brother’s re-education, Vo Dahn recalls the love of his mother.  He believes the selfless love of his mother saves him from being a nihilist.

Vo Dahn does not consider himself a nihilist but agrees that believing in nothing liberates humanity. 

In Paris, Vo Danh chooses to become a mobster who sells drugs for a percentage of profits.  He lives life as he chooses.  He expresses no personal scruple about sale or personal use of drugs or alcohol.  He has no fear of the drug supplying restaurant owner, arrest as a legal consequence, or possible attack by competing mobsters.  Vo Danh lives an amoral life informed by the love of his deceased mother.  His life experience and studied philosophical beliefs lead him to believe in nothing as a way of living in an unprincipled world.  His actions in the world are formed by the mother who loved him and a father (who is a priest) that abandoned him.

What is troubling about Nguyen’s story is that love and care is often missing or mutually misunderstood between a mother and her children.  One might accept Nguyen’s story for those children who are truly loved and cared for by their mothers.  However, if mothers are to be on a pedestal, what about the affect of mothers who do not truly love or care for their children.  Are uncaring mothers responsible for children who become mass murderers, dictators, mobsters, and other societal miscreants?

Nguyen’s story has a strong point of view, but it diminishes the complexity of a child’s growth to adulthood.  Interaction between mothers, fathers, and their offspring are interpreted though the minds of their children. 

One is reminded of fictional and news worthy stories of children who are raised in perfect families who become serial killers.

A recurring truism in Nguyen’s story is that all humans are created equal.  When one is asked where they are from, the only correct answer is “I am from my mother”.  Nothing else matters. Color, national origin, religious belief, or sexual orientation do not determine the value of a human being. Nguyen is a great writer with a point of view worthy of many philosophers of this and past ages.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Fathers and Sons

By: Ivan Turgenev

Narrated by: David Horovitch

Ivan Turgenev (1818 to 1883–Russian novelist,poet, and playwright.)

Understanding the culture of other countries is aided by reading histories and literary classics.  Like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Ivan Turgenev paints a picture of Russian culture in the mid-1800s. 

Russia in 1850

In “Fathers and Sons” it is the age of Alexander II, the Russian Tsar who began his reign in 1855. He presided over emancipation of serfs in 1861. 

Tsar Alexander II (1818-1881)

The Tsar’s intention is to liberate serfs from aristocratic servitude.  In respect for the Tsar, some Russian farmers offer their farmland to serfs in return for rent or a percentage of profits from the sale of produce

There is great turmoil during this time in Russia. 

Tsar Alexander III (1845-1894)

It is eventually quelled by Alexander III (1881-1894) who represses and reverses Alexander II’s political and social liberalization.  Turgenev dies soon after Alexander III’s ascension.  In “Fathers and Sons” one can see the seeds for Alexander III’s reaction to Alexander II’s liberalization.   

The principal character in “Fathers and Sons” is Yevgeny Vassillievitch Bazarov.  He is a young doctor who sees the world through science. 

Bazarov does not believe in God and sees morality as a fiction induced by society.  He is a nihilist.  He purports to believe life is meaningless.

In this Russian era, serfdom created an uneducated underclass that feeds Bazarov’s beliefs.  Serfs had no place in society.  They were indentured to an aristocracy that used them as slaves to cultivate land holdings. 

Alexander II creates change which would allow serfs to own land, work for themselves, and break their cycle of poverty.  However, serfs as well as the aristocracy are unprepared.  Farmers who try to free their serfs find their farmland turns fallow.  The reasons for loss of productivity are complex but such a sudden change in opportunity is either not properly capitalized or resistance by aristocrats scotches Alexander II’s liberation.

Bazarov sees serf liberation as evidence of the meaninglessness of life.  Bazarov and a fellow traveler, both sons of farmers, return to their family farms after finishing their education.  The fellow traveler is Arkady who idolizes Bazarov.  Arkady’s father’s farm is shown to be deteriorating when the two travelers visit.  Bazarov observes the indolence of former serfs who work the land.  At the same time Bazarov notes the entrenched aristocratic prejudices of Arkady’s uncle who has come to live at the farm. This uncle is an immaculately dressed and groomed middle aged man who is well known in aristocratic circles.

Bazarov’s suggests Alexander II’s reform only reinforces the meaninglessness of life.  To Bazarov, human nature is immutable, God does not exist, and art is an affectation.  He places this argument at the feet of Basarov’s uncle. Arkady agrees with Basarov and recognizes him as a mentor and superior intellect. Both the uncle and Arkady’s father are offended by Basarov’s comments. The uncle is appalled by Basarov’s nihilism.

Turgenev introduces a doppelganger of Basarov in a wealthy young widow named Anna Odinsova.  Odinsova is attracted to Bazarov’s views based on her life experience.  She sees life as equally meaningless.  The irony is that Basarov falls in love with Odinsova.  Loving someone contradicts meaninglessness in life.  Odinsova does not love Basarov but admires his intellect.  Basarov’s professed love betrays his nihilist beliefs.

Turgenev accelerates his argument against nihilism by having Arkady fall in love with the sister of Odinsova.  This sister has the moral strength of Odinsova but accepts Arkady’s love, and marries him. They settle on Arkady’s father’s farm.  Arkady, with the help of his new wife, make his father’s farm prosperous.  Arkady’s father changes his role at the farm and is eventually able to retire.  Nihilism has no place in Arkady’s life. Life has meaning to Arkady.

Turgenev leaves his audience with the belief that Odinsova will overcome her belief in nihilism. She marries a prosperous and dynamic Russian businessman.  Turgenev suggests she may grow to love this businessman and abandon her mistaken view of life.  This is a Turgenev’ finishing nail in nihilism’s coffin.

Turgenev’s warning to humanity is that God, morality, and love makes life worth living, while ignominious death is left to nihilists.

Basarov dies from Typhoid, never to realize the wasted life he has led.  His death leaves his mother and father to grieve over Basarov’s great potential and lost opportunity. 


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Dawn of the New Everything (A Memoir)

By: Jaron Lanier  

Narrated by: Oliver Wyman

American computer philosopher, computer scientist, visual artist, and musician.

Both Da Vinci (as characterized by Walter Isaacson) and Jaron Lanier are self-effacing geniuses without formal education. Both manage to create worlds of imagination.

Lanier’s memoir illustrates how refinement of virtual reality is as groundbreaking as Da Vinci’s understanding of light.  History will not likely view Lanier as the Da Vinci of our era but there are interesting similarities. 

Not to carry the comparison too far, Lanier magnifies the value of imagination without limiting its potential for both human good and evil. 

Da Vinci designs weapons of war that purposely fed the ambitions of his era’s tyrants.

Lanier is one of the pioneers of facial recognition.  Facial recognition is a tool that can be used by humanities’ tyrants as well as benefactors.  In conjunction with digitizing the lives of everyone, facial recognition implies a “Brave New World” as eminently realizable. 

A visit to China reinforces potential loss of privacy and human volition with the advance of a digitized and monitored population.

One comes away from Lanier’s memoir with an appreciation for his candor about life and his unshaken belief in the value of technology.  He recognizes his personal imperfection while maintaining an optimistic view for the world’s rescue by AI as a tool rather than controller of human life.  There is some comfort in his opinion, but a listener reserves judgement based on the life Lanier has led.  He is undoubtedly a polymath but his memoir focuses more on pleasures than the reality of most people’s lives.

The principle of virtual reality lends itself to Lanier’s obsession with music and entertainment. 

Lanier is a musician, among many other talents.  He spends some of his time collecting and mastering abstruse musical instruments. 

One comes away from “Dawn of the New Everything” with the feeling that VR has greater potential for distraction than humanity’s betterment. There is respite from this perception with Lanier’s explanation of how VR is used for education and training. It is a virtual tool for medical and science education. 

On the other hand, VR is a tool for remote murder by a person guiding a drone.

B.F. Skinner, American psychologist, behaviorist, author, inventor, and social philosopher.

Lanier also notes that VR has the potential of making life conform to other’s interest.

The “Dawn of Everything” gives a clearer picture of what it was and is like to become a part of the Silicon Valley.  He candidly recounts his rise as a tech mogul, failure, and gadfly. 

Facebook and Twitter addiction are influencers with WMD potential.

Lanier’s memoir is at once enlightening and disheartening.  He offers a virtual picture of modern life that is influencing, but not yet controlling. Lanier is optimistic.  Many listeners will leave his memoir skeptical.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


Hiking with Nietzsche (A Memoir)

By: John Kaag  

Narrated by: Josh Bloomberg

John Kaag (Author, Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell)

Like Mary-Louise Parker’s memoir “Dear Mr. You”, “Hiking with Nietzsche” is nearly returned by this listener.  Both memoirs, as the word suggests, are personal. 

However, Parker’s memoir is burdened by Parker’s self-absorption. “Dear Mr. You” reminds this listener of an actress who chose not to appear at the stage-door in New York after a forgettable stage performance.  Parker is a good writer, but she needs a better subject.

“Hiking with Nietzsche” is not overly burdened by its writer’s self-absorption.  Kaag offers some clarity to Nietzschean philosophical belief.  However, clarity is only partially delivered.  Some details revealed by Kaag of Nietzsche’s life are helpful.

Freidrich Nietzsche (1844-1900, German philosopher, poet, composer, cultural critic, and classical philologist)

Nietzsche’s father was a Lutheran minister.  He died when Nietzsche was only five years old. 

Wilhelm Wagner (1813-1883, German composer and conductor.)

As a young man, Kaag explains Nietzsche idolizes Wagner.  Wagner becomes a father figure to Nietzsche.

However, Wagner treats Nietzsche as a servant, an underling, burdened by sexual identity and a modicum of insight to the nature of life.  Nietzsche eventually breaks with Wagner, partly in recognition of Wagner’s anti-Semite sentiment, but also as a break from surrogate parental control.  Like a child/parent relationship, Nietzsche continues to love Wagner but not as a great human being.

Where Kaag fails is–in inadequately correlating his family life with Nietzschean philosophy.  Kaag notes that Nietzsche spent a great deal of time in the mountains that Kaag and his family are visiting.  He retraces some of Nietzsche’s peripatetic life in Basel and its surroundings.

Kaag explains Nietzsche abandons belief in God and suggests humankind has killed the idea of a Supreme Being which leaves man in charge. 

Nietzsche suggests humankind is on its own. 

Kaag notes Nietzsche argues–We humans can become the ideal man, the master of his/her life.  In that recognition, humans become potential supermen.  Right conduct is determined by individuals overcoming themselves. 

This oneself recognizes morality is based on action that supports life, encourages self-assertion, and has no guilt.  Nietzsche suggests life should come from a “Let it Be” mentality that repeats itself.   Kaag does not make these ideas any clearer in using his family life and his personal actions as a husband and father as exemplars of Nietzschean philosophy.

“Hiking with Nietzsche” is a disappointment but not a waste of time. 

There is something to pursue in philosophy whether one agrees with Nietzsche or not. If “God is Dead” can man be moral?  It seems doubtful based on world history.  On the other hand, all species continue to evolve and adapt.  Earth’s environment is no longer taken for granted.  Are there supermen and women in our future?