Bakewell’s Montaigne

by Chris Bertram on April 5, 2011

I’ve got no time for a proper review, so this post is just a mention of Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer [UK Link]. The academic in me was initially put-off by the self-helpy presentation of the book. Because of this, I imagined that it would be (a) irritating and (b) unscholarly. It is only unscholarly in the good sense that it does not come across as a work of dry academic research. And Bakewell isn’t irritating at all: her writing is fluid, witty and unpretentious. The book provides a compelling psychological portrait of Montaigne, contains plenty of interesting background on the wars of religion, and nudges the reader towards the Montaignian attitude of sceptical curiosity about self, others and the world. I enjoyed it tremendously (got through the 300+ pages in a few days) and am now rooting through the real thing, the Essays. Highly recommended.

Hirschman perversity bingo

by Henry Farrell on April 5, 2011

Mark Blyth has a “somewhat different approach”: to the Greenspan op-ed of last week, which looks to be emerging as the fruit fly genome/Enron email corpus/Zachary’s karate club of theories about post-crisis bogus rationalization.

bq. Rather than deal with the crisis as it happened, or even address what it cost, Greenspan dealt with the crisis on a purely rhetorical level. I mean rhetorical in the sense that Albert Hirschman identified twenty years ago in his fabulous book The Rhetoric of Reaction. (Really, if you haven’t read it, read it now – it’s like a Dan Brown crypex for crisis-newspeak). Hirschman pointed out that conservative arguments come in three distinct theses. First is the “Perversity thesis” where any well meaning reform produces its opposite outcome: ‘welfare makes you poor’ – that sort of thing. The second is the “Jeopardy thesis” where reforms put at risk more than they can ever deliver–­ the fear of extending the suffrage is typical. Third is the “Futility thesis” where reforms are simply pointless – fill in any and all opposition to global warming. Greenspan begins with a few vignettes concerning Ford’s inability to get a credit rating on an ABS and how the banks will suffer if their ATM card fees are regulated, but he soon hits his stride. I gave him a “Hirschman Scorecard” of four perversities, three jeopardies, and two futilities in one column …These ranged from bemoaning how “consequences cannot be readily anticipated” (Jeopardy), to noting how prop-trading rules will force operations abroad (Futility), and hand waving about complexity regarding “undesirable repercussions that might happen” (Perversity).

The rest is also well worth reading, but quite depressing.