U.S. intellectual history
Well-written books about intellectual history are rare, but I had high expectations of Jill Lepore’s new work, The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death. Lepore is not only an academic historian (she is the Chair of the History and Literature Program at Harvard) but also a regular writer for The New Yorker. Her latest book is a collection of her essays about how American ideals about life and death have changed over the past several hundred years. “[M]y argument,” Lepore writes in the Preface, “is that the age of discovery, Darwin, and the space age turned ideas about life on earth topsy-turvy” (xi).
Of all the essays in the collection, the ones that stuck with me the most were her first and last. She begins the book with a blunt and powerful metaphor: life (the board game, that is). LIFE was part of my childhood collection of pixel-less games, which also included Stratego, Risk, Clue, Parcheesi, Thin Ice, and Go to the Head of the Class (all of which have recently been rescued from a mildewy corner of the crawl space in my parents’ house). But LIFE has a much more extensive genealogy than I realized before reading Lepore’s book.
The first board game of life in America was called The New Game of Human Life, and enjoyed popularity during the Revolutionary period. It reflected a much different view of living than the game that I played as a boy. “The [New Game of Human Life],” writes Lepore, “is a creed: life is a voyage that begins at birth and ends at death, God is at the helm, fate is cruel, and your reward lies beyond the grave. Nevertheless, to Puritans, who considered gambling the work of the devil, playing a game of life was, itself, an immoral pursuit” (xxi). (more…)
Origins of institutions
Four years ago, I wrote my senior history thesis about the beginnings of philosophical ideas in three ancient cultures. One of the most satisfying experiences in studying history is to learn the backstory of something ancient that still has a prominent place in current life. The following new books describe the origins of long-lasting institutions. Andrew Shryrock and Daniel Smail Lord’s new work, published last November, combines essays about language, food, kinship, and other topics related to life before humans started writing.
Half a year before that, political theorist Francis Fukuyama released a popular book about how bureaucratic and democratic political systems evolved from tribal societies and why imposing these sophisticated institutions on tribal cultures today causes problems. Sociologist Robert N. Bellah’s book, also published last year, about the evolution of religion seems a bit dry to read, but the ideas of this ambitious project are worth considering (my senior thesis was equally ambitious but only benefited from a year’s worth of work rather than a lifetime’s). Finally, rounding out the list is a new work coauthored by Kent Flanner and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire. They describe their take on the origins of inequality in various social contexts and how to prevent it in the future.
Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. Christopher Boehm. Since the days of Peter Kropotkin, scientists have tried to restrain the impulse to turn descriptive Darwinism into prescriptive selfishness. Boehm here argues that altruism in human society is as favored by evolution as selfishness. (more…)