Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Reflections: Utilitarianism

What can I say about a book like Utilitarianism? It's a book or treatise only a few will ever read. Normally devoured and debated by full time academics, I'm one of the odd folks who reads a treatise like Utilitarianism for pleasure and my own person gratification. John Stuart Mill's intellectual work can easily be compared to similar works like Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, John Locke's Two Treatises of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration, and of course Mill's other work, which I enjoyed quite a bit more than Utilitarianism, On Liberty. It's a foundational work, and it deserves a thorough and thoughtful study because it contributes so meaningfully to any conversation regarding morals, ethics, and justice.

In order to read a treatise like Utilitarianism the reader has to understand the usual method and mode by which these are written. As I have read more and more of these political, philosophical, and ideological explorations, I have seen them more and more in a modern context. In other words, they were the discussion boards and online debates before our world was so interconnected by the internet and the various social sites that link us all together (pun intended). Often the writers of these intellectual works are responding directly to a critic, but it feels as if they're writing into a vacuum. (Locke's first treatise of government feels especially vacuous). When we think of asynchronous communication now we think of emails going back and forth between senders and receivers. But even that could occur within a few days, hours, or minutes. During Mill's time a debate could extend for decades between disputants--one treatise at a time.

Having said all of that, Utilitarianism is an enjoyable and challenging read, as well as being somewhat arcane, as one would expect. Like many of the other works of this nature, it is very easy for a modern reader to get lost in the prose. The extremely long sentences which deal with multiple complex ideas and the lack of paragraph breaks or other reading cues that we're now familiar with. In addition, you might wonder where Mills or other writers like him are heading or what point they're trying to make among all of their logical contortions. One has to admire a mind like Mills and his ability to see the world from a different and more conceptual perspective than most of us can. A book like Utilitarianism is important because it informs our assumptions and our a priori convictions. We take for granted that certain knowledge, mostly accepted by Western civilization, wasn't so accepted several hundred years ago. Mill, along with other thinkers like him, helped push our understanding forward into, hopefully, a more enlightened state.

Utilitarianism is well worth a read if you already have a decent knowledge regarding the topics being discussed in the treatise. If not, it will be an especially difficult slog. Furthermore, if you're looking for a work from Mill to read, I would recommend his On Liberty much more readily than I would Utilitarianism.

Notable Quotes:
  • "Mankind are always predisposed to believe that any subjective feeling...is a revelation of some objective reality"
  • "That a feeling is bestowed on us by Nature, does not necessarily legitimate all its promptings."
  • "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied."
Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Reflections on the Revolution in France
Reflections: Two Treatises of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration
Reflections: Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty

Friday, February 12, 2016

Reflections: Death Comes for the Archbishop

Several years ago I read A Lost Lady by Willa Cather. I found the book engaging and entertaining, albeit not an instant classic in my mind. I recognized the writing as being better than most and remembered the name Willa Cather for future reference. Only a few months ago some fellow Church members were giving away a box full of books, which I, of course, perused with delight.  Among  the collection of books I found Thomas L. Friedman's excellent From Beirut to Jerusalem, which I read last year, and Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop. Remembering my positive experience with A Lost Lady I grabbed the book for future reading. 

Death Comes for the Archbishop is a truly lovely book. Cather's prose is simple but very effective and evocative. I felt the landscapes of Old and New Mexico; I could almost see it. (Having served a full time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Las Vegas, Nevada helped with the visualization quite a bit). Cather's understated protagonist, Father Latour, is a noble and good soul, a character worth spending time with. His brother in the gospel, Joseph Valliant, is a layered, interesting, and delightful character. Death Comes for the Archbishop offers refreshing observations regarding religion, traditions, faith, devotion, and the human character and condition. The book's somewhat bleak title belies its ability to uplift and edify the reader, to say nothing of educate. 

In addition to all of this I must admit my personal connection to a book like Death Comes for the Archbishop. Although my experience serving as a missionary does not mirror in many ways the experience of the fictional characters of Father Latour and Vicar Valliant, I felt a kinship and camaraderie with them I haven't felt reading any other fictional work. I know something of what it means to be a missionary, and it can be brutal as well as beautiful. I've experienced my own story, my Dustland Fairytale as I've called it (thanks to The Killers), and Cather's book did more in helping me remember my mission than most any other thing in recent memory. I hold Death Comes for the Archbishop very dear to my heart because of this, in addition to it being a wonderfully written book.  

Below are some notable passages from the book that struck me with singular feelings: 
  • "...it was no easy matter for two missionaries on horseback to keep up with the march of history."
  •  "Doctrine is well enough for the wise...but the miracle is something we can hold in our hands and love." 
  • "Man was lost and saved in a garden."
I have bemoaned the state of fiction so many times in the past. I still maintain its power and value and a book like Death Comes for the Archbishop is the reason fiction exists. What it can get the reader to feel and experience is beyond what non-fiction can do, no matter how good it is. Death Comes for the Archbishop has made Willa Cather a future book-fellow of mine for many years to come.

Other Topics of Interest: