Category Archives: Books

Books History Women's history

From How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell

p. 150
Libertinism remained a minority pursuit, but a disproportionately influential one, because out of the libertins would evolve the Enlightenment philosophers of the following century. They gave Montaigne a dangerous yet positive new image, which would stick. They also spawned a less radical breed of salon socialites,: aphorists such as La Bruyere and La Rouchefoucauld whose Maximes gathered together brief, Montaignean observations on human nature:
At times we are as different from ourselves as we are from others.
The surest way to be taken in is to think oneself craftier than other people.
Chance and caprice rule the world.
And, as it happens, one La Rochefoucauld maxim provided a neat comment on Montaigne’s own 17th-century predicament:
We often irritate others when we think we could not possibly do so.

p. 174
According to Giovanni Botero, an Italian political writer living in France in the 1580s, the French countryside of that decade was so rife with thieves and murderers that every house was obliged to keep “watch of the vineyards and orchards: gates, locks, bolts and mastiffs’. Apparently Botero had not visited the Montaigne estate: there the only defender was a person whom Montaigne described as ‘a porter of ancient custom and ceremony, who serves not so much to defend my door as to offer it with more decorum and grace’.
Montaigne lived this way because he was determined to resist intimidation, and did not want to become his own gaoler. But he also believed that, paradoxically, his openness made him safer … Locks made a place look valuable, and there could be no sense of glory in robbing a household where one was welcomed by an elderly doorkeeper. Also, the usual rules of fortification hardly apply in a civil war, ‘your valet may be of the party that you fear’ … far better to win the enemy over by behaving with generosity and honour.
,, once travelling through a forest in a dangerous rural area, he was attacked by 15 to 20 masked men … “I owed my deliverance to my face and the freedom and firmness of my speech’… this was the kind of confrontation that could happen at any time, to any person, and Montaigne often wondered about the best way of dealing with it. Is it wiser to face up squarely to your enemy and challenge him, or should you curry favour by showing submission. Should you throw yourself on the aggressor’s mercy and hope that his sense of humanity will make him spare you? Or if that foolhardy?”

p. 179 “For Montaigne, all humans share an element of their being, and so do all other living things … ‘There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants. We owe justice to men, and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it. There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation’….
We owe other beings the countless small acts of kindness and empathy that Nietzsche would describe as ‘goodwill’ … Montaigne added this remark about his dog: “I am not afraid to admit that my nature is so tender, so childish, that I cannot well refuse my dog the play he offers me or asks of me outside the proper time.” He indulges his dog because he can imaginatively share the animal’s point of view: he can feel how desperate the dog is to banish boredom and get his human friend’s attention.”

p. 291 “Marie le Jars de Gournay, Montaigne’s first great editor and publicist … was a woman of extreme enthusiasm and emotion, all of which she uninhibitedly threw at Montaigne on their first meeting in Paris … her family, minor provincial nobles, lived partly in Paris and partly at the Picardy chateau and estate of Gournay-sur-Aronde, which her father bought in 1568. In adulthood, Marie took her last name from this estate. Such a right was normally reserved for sons, but it was typical of her to ignore this rule … By 1580, Marie was confined to a provincial world … she did what she could to educate herself using the books in the family library. By reading Latin works alongside their French translations, she gave herself the best classical ground she could. The result was a patchy knowledge, unsystematic but deeply motivated.”

Books Feminism History Politics Women's history

Notes from The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains by Choo Waihong

p. 120 The very existence of a woman-centric society in a sea of patriarchy that has inundated the whole world … calls into question the inevitability of human society involving as the male-dominant archetype. The Kingdom of Women has shown that it is possible to have an alternative model … forging a better environment in which a woman can e nurtured and fostered to reach her full potential as a complete, confident person ready to contribute as meaningfully as a man to society … the Mosuo model that puts the female at its centre without downgrading the male to purgatory appears to be a much better option. In a mad moment … I had a vision that I must have been a Mosou woman in a past life. How else could I make sense of the feeling of connectedness I feel in the midst of my Mosuo friends, never again having to fight against covert male chauvunusm in my previous law firms in Singapore or be as aggressive as the next man in an all-male network of lawyers in Los Angeles.”

p. 121. “Gumi … her direct maternal ancestor is Malaxshimi, whose clan is found today in the southern parts of Asia and on the islands of the Pacific as well as in Mongolia, Korea, India and Pakistan.”

p. “I became curious to find out where Zhaxi’s ancestors [a particularly prominent, popular, six-foot man] came from … his genes revealed that he was descended from the paternal clan ancestor of Sigurd, the dragon-slayer of Norse mythology. Here was a he-man from Lugu Lake who could trace his ancestry to the Vikings of Norway .. it might suggest why Zhaxi and his Musou brothers look so different from the Chinese and other ethnic minority groups in this part of the world.”

p. 147 “An axia pair may decide to go on meeting on a regular basis that progresses over time into a stable relationship, and this is when their affair is more open, with the ‘walking’ man not hiding his presence in front of the woman’s family … the male axia comes and goes openly, though still only at night “

p. 149 “the ‘nuclear’ family is a separate unit consisting of the grandmother and her children and all her matrilineal descendants’”

Books History Politics

Notes from Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation by Brendan Sims

p. 4 “England acquired her French empire by dynastic happenstance, and her kings expanded it for reasons of ambition, but its retention soon acquired a strategic rationale. In the pre-modern age, sail was the fastest form of travel, making northern France and Flanders much closer to London than to northern England. The Channel was not a barrier but a conduit across the ‘Narrow Sea’. … Proximity was good for trade, but bad for security. There was no way the infant navy could be sure of intercepting an invasion force once it had embarked. … Whoever had access to the sea in the Middle Ages – and for long after – could cross if they had the shops to do so. This meant that England would either have to attack an enemy fleet before it left harbour, as she did with great success at Bruges in 1213 and Sluys in 1340 or, better still, to control the far shores to prevent embarkation in the first place. Channel posts such as Dover and Calais were thus understood as strategically interdependent, both as bastions against Europe and as sally ports into the continent.”
p.52-55 “The British elite knew about Europe, and knew more as the 18th century progressed. A considerable number had fought there during the war of Grand Alliance against Louis XIV, and were to do so again in the 1740s and 1750s. Some of them studied there, including William Pitt the Elder, who spent time at the University of Utrecht. Many more went on the Grand Tour. British statesmen frequently accompanied the king to Hanover … in the parliamentary sphere, … embarrassing gaffe or manifest geographical ignorance were rare, at least before 1760. … Two of the most prominent experts of the time, Luke Schaub and Francois Saint-Saphorin, were foreign born and routinely reported to London in French from their diplomatic posts….the world 18th-century British statesman inhabited – certainly before 1760 – was still a firmly Eurocentric one… of course, there were tose who attacked the British strategic consensus on Europe and espoused a naval and insular destiny in its stead … exploded with renewed force in the 1730s in a popular and parliamentary clamour for a maritime war against Spain… former secretary of state and arch-Tory Bolingbroke in his trace The Idea of A Patriot King, 1738 …”Great Britain is an island’. She should avoid continental wars and devote ‘a continual attention to improve her natural, that is her maritime strength… like other amphibious animals, we must come occasionally on shore: but the water is more properly our element, and in it, like them, as we find our greatest security, so we exert our greatest force’… All the same, the prevailing elite sense was that Britain was an integral part of Europe … partly a question of economic interest, as trade with Europe far exceeded that with any other part of the world. In November 1755, the Lord Chancellor the Earl of Hardwicke observed that ‘No man of sense or integrity will say that you can quite separate yourselves from the continent.” .. the Earl of Sunderland [1716] the “old Tory notion that England can subsist by itself whaever becomes of the rest of Europe was “justly exploded ever since the revolution [of 1688].”

p. 57 “Britain had not merely a calling to maintain the balance, it also had a clear interest in doing so. It was only the European balance that stoof between Britain and the threat of ‘universal monarchy’, which would not only destroy British commerce but would bring in its train the return of the Stuarts and the subversion of the Revolution Settlement of 1688.
p. 67 Central to the culture of intervention … was a realization that British power was limited and that British interests could be achieved only in cooperation with other states. There was a resulting reliance on diplomacy and European alliances, often backed up with Britain’s formidable fiscal power in the shape of subsidies. It was for this reason that the former arch-universalist William Pitt announced in late 1759 that he had “unlearned his juvenile errors, and thought no longer that England could do it all by herself”.

p. 105 The primacy of Europe in British stategy throughout most of the Napoleonic period was to be demonstrated again and again. Whever the opportunity presented itself, Britain engaged the French on land: in 1799 in Holland; in north Germany in 1805-6; in Walcharen in 1809; in the Peninsula after 1808; and, of course, in the Low Countries in 1815…Only two major operations were mounted against colonial targets: those to the Cape of Good Hope in 1805 and South America in 1806-7; the latter, it should be added, was simply an opportunistic exploitation of an unauthorized initiative by Sir Home Popham which ended in tears…. London saw colonial possession as pawns with which to re-establish the European balance of power. For example, the Cape of Good Hope was, temporarily, restored to the Dutch in 1802”.

p. 134 (1880s) “the Maquis of Salisbury … was in fact deeply critical of the ‘sterile’ and ‘dangerous’ policy of isolation. Salisbury was entirely clear that Britain’s destny la on the continent. ‘We are part of the community of Europe,’ Salisbury remarked,’ ‘and we must do our duty as such.’

Books Environmental politics Politics

Notes from The Shock of the Anthropocene by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz

Page 69 “Exaggerating a little, we could say that history for the anthropocenologists comes down in the end to the set of exponential graphs. The specificity of historical reasoning, the effort to construct an explanatory account, is eclipsed in favour of a descriptive and quantitative view. But it’s the concordant upward curves are indeed chronological indexes, they are explanatory at the secondary level. Environmental statistics simply measure the results of the historical phenomena that are the prime movers of the crisis. The less undifferentiated and more explanatory history of the Anthropocene that we propose in this book seeks to shift the focus of the study from the environments affected and the biogeochemical cycles disturbed on to the actors, institutions and decisions that have produced these effects.”

Page 73 “The grand narrative of the Anthropocene is thus the story of an awakening. There was a long moment of unawareness, from 1750 to the late 20th century, followed by a sudden arousal. … We can include in this binary narrative the overly simple thesis according to which modernity has established a great separation between nature and society, a separation that allegedly prevented us from becoming aware of ecological issues, and that was only challenged quite recently. As if the thinkers of antiquity have not already established distribution between nature and culture, whether to promote it or question its value and limitations; as if modernity, ever since the Renaissance, is not also constructed around knowledge that emphasized the belonging of human beings to the enveloping order of nature…. The problem with all of the grand narratives of awakening, revelation or arousal of consciousness is that they are historically wrong. The period 1770 and 1830 was marked on the contrary by a very acute awareness of the interactions between nature and society. Deforestation, for example, was conceived as the rupture of an organic link between woodland, human society and the global environment, and the use of coal was promoted as a way to restore forests. … An organicist scientific thought conceived the earth as a living things right to the mid 19th century. … By proposing in 1821 that ‘ it is therefore the planet as a whole that is compromised [ by deforestation and other environmental damages], and not just certain regions’ Charles Fourier reflected on a large number of scientific writings and warnings of his time.”

Page 101 “In Great Britain between 1800 and 2000 the price of light (measured in lumens) fell by a factor of 3000, but consumption increased 40000 times. According to goods and their price elasticity, the rebound effect varies, but on the whole, energy efficiency has been more than out balanced by economic growth.”

Page 103 “The crisis of the 1930s offers some interesting cases: Carbon emissions in the United States fell from 520 to 340 million tonnes, and in France from 66 to 55 million. In the latter case, this reduction was not just bound up with the recession, but also with the differential evolution of prices; that of coal rose by 40% during the crisis, while the general price index stagnating. It was also in the 1930s that wood fuel experienced a peak, before a definitive decline after the Second World War.”

page 105 Gaslighting which appeared in London in the 1810s was extraordinarily inefficient. “It consisted in distilling coal – using more coal to heat this – in order to produce a gas designed to light housing or streets. … A third of the coal was burnt to produce gas, a third of this gas escaped in pipes that massively leaked, and at the end of the day the lie to each day was very poor…. The transition from oil lamps to gas lighting, that is, from an organic and locally applied energy to a fossil energy distribution over a network, while massively increasing energy consumption, above all increased the losses.”

“The ‘ energy consumed per capita’ traced by historians actually corresponds to national production of energy divided by population. It includes example with the energy spent on waging wars, running the navy and controlling the empire, as well as the energy dissipated in inefficient technological systems. What we lack is a history of energy services, which would show the energy actually used by different classes of consumers.”

Page 107 “The ecologists David and Marcia Pimentel, for example, showed that the transition from a traditional agriculture to an intensive and mechanised one led to a fall in energy yield: More calories (basically derived from oil) had to be used in order to produce each calorie of food. In the case of maize, the shift was from a ratio of 10 calories produced for each calorie invested to a ratio of only three to one. The generalisation of this type of analysis, that is, a general history of thermodynamic (in)efficiency (taking up Ivan Illich’s thesis of counter-productivity) would undoubtedly lead to a far more ambiguous account than that conveyed by energy history and its ascendant curves of energy, health and efficiency.”

read more »

Books Environmental politics Politics

From After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene by Jedediah Purdy

p. 16 “we have not advanced far towards Mill’s ideal of emancipated mastery over nature. Instead, the more we understand and the more our power increases, the more our control over nature seems a precarious fantasy.”

p. 17 The Anthropocene begins amid a threefold crisis  of ecology, economics, and politics. These are the three great modes in which humans make a home… The three crises share a starting point: the recognition that a system believed, or at least imagined and hoped, to be stable and self-correcting has turned out to be unstable and even prone to collapse.”

p. 18 “If we want self-sustaining world, social & natural, we must build it. Nothing inherent will produce that stability”

p. 18 “Th economists’ term ‘externality’ suggests an aberration, the incidental exception to a system that otherwise works – but here, that is the reverse of the truth. What economic analysis treats as an externality, what is invisible in market transactions, is the globe that houses all economic activity. Needless to say, everything is inside that ‘externality’. The harms that are invisible to the economy may overwhelm the system itself.”

p. 90 Thomas Paine saw the natural world as grounding a principle of economic equality. ‘Natural property was the inborn right of every person to an equal share of the unimproved world, which was the common inheritance of humanity, now artificially divided into private property. Paine’s ‘Letter on Agrarian Justice’ argued for a tax on wealth that would amount to ‘ground-rent’ paid to society by those who owned  the world, to compensate the dispossesed. The money should go to universal benefits: a payment to each person at birth, as a king of social inheritance to start them in life, plus pensions for the aged. Paine argued that this scheme would make the artificial institution of private property beneficial to all, whereas without his reforms it preserved both wealth and great poverty.”

p. 118 The Sierra Club’s “ideal was the personal encounter with nature … even as its activity was intensely social, even communal, to the point where one member described its encampments (with only the lightest irony) as short-lived socialist utopias. Club members relied on one another for comfort, survival and companionship in the high country. Even more, they relied on one another to confirm and amplify their quasi-mystical experience by hearing it and saying it back to them.”

p. 119 Thoreau reviewed a book that proposed a technological utopia. The work, by J.A. Etzler, was The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men, without Labor, by Means of Nature and Machinery, published in 1842. Etzler, a follower of the French social visionary Charles Fourier, argued that men could build a paradise on earth (and, he promised, within a decade) by harnessing what the 21st century calls renewable energy. Wind, tides, and the sun would replace human labor. … Thoreau agreed with Etzler that unused energy was plentiful:air surged and plunged over the earth: New England’s few windmills were a farcical tribute to its power. The waves and tides were even stronger, and the sun’s vast energy promised limitless power, if only people could capture it.”

p. 171 Gifford Pinchot “called on Americans to  ‘ make ourselves… responsible for [the country’s] future’. Conservation’s basic goal was well-being: it aimed to make ‘the difference between prosperity and poverty, health and sickness, ignorance and education, well-being and misery.’ Conservation’s success would be ‘patriotism in action’… conservation should teach each citizen devotion to the good of all.”

p. 195 John Muir “is probably best remembers for observing that one cannot tug on anything in nature without finding it connected to everything else -a folksy slogan of interdependence… part of a usable history for the age of ecology. .. We can love the world because it is intelligible, formed in an order that we can understand ever more richly. At the same time, it awes us because it is always older, stranger and more complex than we can grasp: in every dimension, it runs beyond our reach. … This was the new, ecological shape that wilderness advocates gave to the Romantic tradition of treating the politics of nature as the politics of consciousness. .. humility invited a homecoming – not to the sublime mountains, as Muir had urged, but to a sense of being entirely native to the planet at large. … Americans concerned with the natural world did nothing less in those years than invent something we now take for granted: the concept of the environment. .. In 1968, an urgent warning appeared in Time magazine: ‘The false assumption that nature exists only to serve man is at the root of an ecological crisis that ranges from the lowly litterbug to the lunacy of nuclear proliferation. At this hour, man’s only choice is to live in harmony with nature, not to conquer it.”

p. 109 “the seminal environmental standing case, Sierra Club v Morton. Here the Supreme Court considered whether the Sierra Club could sue to oppose development in California’s Mineral King Valley, and ruled that the group had standing to appear in court only if at least one of its members used the disputed area and would be personally affected by the proposed development. The case is most famous, though, for Justive William O Douglas’s animist-toned dissent, which adopted the language and spirit of proposals to recognise natural entities as legal actors. ‘The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it .. The voice of the inanimate object, therefore, should not be stilled.'”

p. 231 “as the Romantic strain of environmental imagination took hold, farmers, who animated James Wilson’s flourish American landscape, became figures of plodding, spiritless labor instead. Thoreau portrayed his neihgbors as slaves to their land, labors and conventional ideas. Emerson complained that he could not enjoy contemplating a landscape when farmers were working on it …Today a new appreciation is emerging for worked and inhabited landscapes, fertile terrains for responsible labor. This is the landscape of what one might call the food movement. It is not providential but ecological. Working  there converts ecological consciousness into concrete activity, as surely as John Muir’s walking guides did for Romantic ways of seeing. .. the physical labor of growing, gathering, and cooking food is a source of satisfaction, enriched by knowledge of the ecological, chemical and other processes that the work engages… As a cultural matter, the food movement offers a way to make abstract ecological values concretely one’s own. It poses an answer to a puzzle of post-1970 environmental thought, a puzzle presented in any effort to think ecologically. An environmental ethic that people can live by must tap into basic motives” Can either be done by tapping existing values e.g. patriotism with Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinochet, or a new identity – the settler ethic and the wild-lands pilgrimage of the Sierra Club.

p. 237-8 “Ecology is the only possible home for an economy .. neoliberal environmentalists today portray the world as ‘natural capital’ … it brings nature fully into political economy, but a specifically neoliberal political economy, committed to the perspective of capital… An alternative would be to think of nature not as providing capital but doing work, work in which human labor collaborates… work is not only industry, the prodictive  action that that transforms the world, but also reproduction, the work of remaking life with each year and generation . Seeing nature’s work in this light would align environmental politics with the key feminist insight that much socially necessary work is ignored or devalued as ‘caregiving’, a gendered afterthought to the real dynamos of the economy, when in reality no shared life could do without it. This approach would also have the potential to align environmental politics with a labor movement of caregivers i an economy where an increasing amount of the work done by human beings (rather than machines) is the work of social reproduction: nursing, teaching, parenting.”

p. 253 “One might imagine, then, learning to see the global atmospheric system, the interwoven patterns of currents and winds, seasons and climatic regions, as something beautiful. It makes a world suited for human life, a world in which we have learned to live… The question to ask about greenhouse gases, in this light … is …whether they tend to mar the beauty of a system that, for all its inherent perturbations, describes a set of rough balances that we have come to find beautiful. Alternatively but not incompatibly, the global atmosphere might come to seem sublime, a brooding, powerful source of threat, beyond our complete understanding, out of the scale of our control, able to disrupt familiar worlds and make us aware of human smallness and fragility… Both treasuring beauty and feeling awe at sublimity are ways of respecting an order of things, and of valuing motives to act so as to uphold it.”

p. 286 “taking responsibility for nature and taking responsibility for democracy come together. The democratic responsibility is the responsibility of making a world, a responsibility that for much of human experience has fallen to the imagined legislation of gods. This goes for both the political and the natural world. Always bound together in imagination, in the Anthropocene these two are inseparable in fact.”

p. 287 democracy is not just the stripping away of old hierarchies; it means making the world together, including taking responsibility for our mutually shaping interaction with nature.”

Books History Women's history

Notes from Ottonian Queenship by Simon Maclean

p. 1 “one of the features of the Frankish world in the 10th century which distinguishes it clearly from the 9th-century heyday of the Carolingian Empire. The Carolingian kings and emperors of the 9th century had always married social inferiors, usually aristocrats from families within their own kingdoms with whom they wished to strengthen an alliance. Some of these queens were powerful; some left little more on the historical record than their names. But after the end of the empire in 888, one of the strategies used by kings representing the new dynasties struggling to project themselves as authentically royal was precisely to seek marriage with women from more prestigious royal families in neighbouring kingdoms. A practice which had in the early 9th century been expressly forbidden by Carolingian rulers anxious to limit the size of the royal family became, in the 10th, a routine dynastic strategy.” The historian Richer of Rhems in the early 990s claimed it was a matter of principle.

p. 2 Richer’s comment on the appropriate status of West Frankish queens was certainly informed by the spectacular power of the Ottonian empresses of his own day, whose careers and posthumous reputations mark them out as some of the most famous queens in medieval history. The Byzantine princess Theophanu, widow of Otto II, was in effect the ruler of the kingdom in place of her inant son between her husband’s death in 983 and her own in 991 – such was her status that we have a document of 990 dated to the years of her reign as ‘Theophanius imperator’”… her mother-in-law the Empress Aldelheid, was not only Otto I’s second wife but also a daughter, sister, mother, and widow of kings. She presided over three generations of Ottonian power in east Francia and Italy before her death in 999.”