Category Archives: books

Confronting Leviathan

In his 1651 book, Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes imagined the state as the biblical sea monster. Professor David Runciman examines how different philosophers down the centuries have understood the relationship of citizens to the people who govern the state.

Starting with Thomas Hobbes, this book explains how various thinkers have understood and explained the state and its relationship to the people within it. These thinkers range from Gandhi to Marx and from Mary Wollstonecraft to Francis Fukuyama.

The reference point is always Hobbes’s Leviathan and how more modern thinkers have agreed with, contradicted or thought differently to Hobbes and how their thoughts influenced the events of their times.

The Secret History of the Gnostics

This is a book I will keep as a reference.

The Gnostics were distinguished from other early Christians in their emphasis on gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge rather than faith. According to the Gnostics, it is gnosis itself that saves, redeems, and provides liberation. The Gnostics saw Jesus as a saviour and redeemer, but their Jesus saved and redeemed by bringing knowledge of the universe and Man’s place within it.

Gnosis is a direct kind of knowledge and might be translated as ‘acquaintance’ or ‘recognition’. True gnosis is a direct knowledge of the Self and the truth about the universe.

The Gnostics first appeared in the first centuries AD in the eastern Mediterranean. At the peak of their activity there were many different groups called Marcosians, Ophites, Cainites, Naasenes, and Carpocratians by the Church Fathers but really they were mainly Sethians and Valentinians. The author traces the line of Gnostics through to the Cathars and Paulicians and Bogomils a thousand years later and to the Mandaeans of modern-day Iraq.

Other spiritual systems have Gnostic qualities for instance Mahayana Buddhism, Kabbalah, and Neoplatonism.

Confronting Leviathan

In his 1651 book, Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes imagined the state as the biblical sea monster. Professor David Runciman examines how different philosophers down the centuries have understood the relationship of citizens to the people who govern the state.

Starting with Thomas Hobbes, this book explains how various thinkers have understood and explained the state and its relationship to the people within it. These thinkers range from Gandhi to Marx and from Mary Wollstonecraft to Francis Fukuyama.

The reference point is always Hobbes’s Leviathan and how more modern thinkers have agreed with, contradicted or thought differently to Hobbes and how their thoughts influenced the events of their times.

A Short History of Myth – Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong suggests the history of myth is the history of humanity; our stories and beliefs link us to our ancestors and each other. This wonderful book takes the reader from the Palaeolithic period and the myths of the hunters right up to modern times when myths have almost all been discredited by science.

Armstrong makes the point that today we still seek heroes but that this adulation is unbalanced. The myth of the hero was never intended to provide us with icons to admire, but was intended to tap into the vein of heroism within all of us.

We need myths that will help us to identify with all our fellow-beings, myths that help us create a spiritual attitude, and myths that help us venerate the earth as sacred once again, otherwise we will not save our planet, if we just regard it as a resource.

Armstrong also makes a great point about the early hunters who felt a kinship with the animals that they killed. They expressed their distress in the rituals of sacrifice which honoured the beasts which had died for the sake of humanity.

Superb book. Recommended.

The Secret History of the Gnostics

This is a book I will keep as a reference.

The Gnostics were distinguished from other early Christians in their emphasis on gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge rather than faith. According to the Gnostics, it is gnosis itself that saves, redeems, and provides liberation. The Gnostics saw Jesus as a saviour and redeemer, but their Jesus saved and redeemed by bringing knowledge of the universe and Man’s place within it.

Gnosis is a direct kind of knowledge and might be translated as ‘acquaintance’ or ‘recognition’. True gnosis is a direct knowledge of the Self and the truth about the universe.

The Gnostics first appeared in the first centuries AD in the eastern Mediterranean. At the peak of their activity there were many different groups called Marcosians, Ophites, Cainites, Naasenes, and Carpocratians by the Church Fathers but really they were mainly Sethians and Valentinians. The author traces the line of Gnostics through to the Cathars and Paulicians and Bogomils a thousand years later and to the Mandaeans of modern-day Iraq.

Other spiritual systems have Gnostic qualities for instance Mahayana Buddhism, Kabbalah, and Neoplatonism.

EP Thompson and the Making of the New Left

Edward Palmer Thompson was an English historian, writer, socialist and peace campaigner. He is best known today for his books on radical movements in particular The Making of the English Working Class.

This collection of his work helped revive left-wing / socialist politics in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s and includes essays on the communism of William Morris and about those socialists whose work helped create the Labour Party such as Tom Maguire.

EP Thompson doesn’t spare from criticism such well-known political figures as Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke.

Three Men on the Bummel – Book Review

This is the sequel to Three Men in a Boat and it is really rather good, especially when the three men – George, Harris and J – are travelling around the middle of Europe interacting with the locals and passing judgment on their surroundings as they move from Hamburg to Berlin and Dresden and their destination The Black Forest.

A bummel is a journey either long or short without a specific end date. It strikes me everyone should go on a bummel occasionally.

There are some amusing anecdotes – George tries to buy a pillow / cushion for his aunt but ends up with a peck on the cheek from an embarrassed shop assistant (the difference between kissen and kussen). Harris tries to stop a man watering a road in Hanover and ends up wetting everyone in sight in his struggle to wrest the hose from the man’s grasp. J steals a bike from a train under the mistaken impression it was Harris’s bike and not a complete stranger’s bike and ends up having to explain himself to the police who believe him to be a thief.

There are some excellent insights into the male character, for example on a man’s sense of direction:

“My instinct is correct enough; it is the earth that is wrong. I led them by the middle road….If the middle road had gone in the direction it ought to have done, it would have taken us to where we wanted to go.”

and a great reason why English spread through Europe and beyond

“But the man who has spread the knowledge of English from Cape St Vincent to the Ural Mountains is the Englishman who, unable or unwilling to learn a single a single word of any language but his own, travels purse in hand into every corner of the Continent.”

A Short History of Myth – Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong suggests the history of myth is the history of humanity; our stories and beliefs link us to our ancestors and each other. This wonderful book takes the reader from the Palaeolithic period and the myths of the hunters right up to modern times when myths have almost all been discredited by science.

Armstrong makes the point that today we still seek heroes but that this adulation is unbalanced. The myth of the hero was never intended to provide us with icons to admire, but was intended to tap into the vein of heroism within all of us.

We need myths that will help us to identify with all our fellow-beings, myths that help us create a spiritual attitude, and myths that help us venerate the earth as sacred once again, otherwise we will not save our planet, if we just regard it as a resource.

Armstrong also makes a great point about the early hunters who felt a kinship with the animals that they killed. They expressed their distress in the rituals of sacrifice which honoured the beasts which had died for the sake of humanity.

Superb book. Recommended.

Work won’t love you back – Book Review

It’s a particularly apposite time to be reading this book when many people are re-evaluating their life in regard to their work situation and indeed whether they should stay employed in their current role. This book made me think deeply about why I’m working where I am and whether I shouldn’t move somewhere else.

This book shows how the capitalist system has transformed work into a labour of love that’s wreaking havoc on people’s lives. Sarah Jaffe’s book provides examples on how some employees are fighting back against the all-consuming conditions of work and gives us hope that employers of the future can provide jobs that treat people as humans rather than commodities in companies where there’s no exploitation.

We have re-created the society of the ancient Greeks, where many of us are so busy with work that being informed members of society feels impossible, and political and social engagement are indulgences for the wealthy. Free time is necessary in order to participate fully in society and a lot of people are denied this time.

EP Thompson and the Making of the New Left

Edward Palmer Thompson was an English historian, writer, socialist and peace campaigner. He is best known today for his books on radical movements in particular The Making of the English Working Class.

This collection of his work helped revive left-wing / socialist politics in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s and includes essays on the communism of William Morris and about those socialists whose work helped create the Labour Party such as Tom Maguire.

EP Thompson doesn’t spare from criticism such well-known political figures as Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke.