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on 9 July 2009
Susan Neiman delivers as promised an accessible text and a great read in which she vigorously defends the Enlightenment against all comers including counter-Enlightenment's Isaiah Berlin, post modernism's Michel Foucault (the most amoral man Noam Chomsky ever met!) and evangelical Anglicanism's bishop Tom Wright. According to Neiman, the Enlightenment was holistic in preserving emotion and metaphysics as well as establishing reason. It never claimed human progress was inevitable. Kant is her main Enlightenment hero. Neiman's Enlightenment stood against superstition, torture and inherited privilege, and offered a metaphysic of happiness, reason, reverence and hope. She indulges her passion for Bush-bashing extensively which is OK but sometimes a distraction to her more positive themes.

She succeeds in her mission if measured in terms of conviction writing. Her chapter 9 on Hope is particularly inspiring and deserves selective reading for those who want to cherry pick. Here she trounces the negative view of humanity shared by religion's original sin and evolution's selfish gene and follows primatologist Frans de Waal in claiming altruism as a fundamental human characteristic feeding distributive justice in human society, and neurologist V S Ramachandran in observing `mirror neurons' in the human brain which means we are `wired up for empathy and compassion'.

Two weaknesses are i) that she often states what the Enlightenment said and thought without any specific quotation as though it were a single source rather than an expression spread widely over contributors, ideas and time and ii) that she follows the common assumption that reason establishes virtue which it sadly doesn't - ethics are in fact arbitrary. Reason does not necessarily lead to reasonableness. Reason explains what is and virtue says what ought to be, but these don't converge. Neiman glosses over this crack between the twins of the Enlightenment.

But Neiman raises the potential for humans and humanity. She triumphs the hero from the myth of Odysseus. Generosity is heroic, heroism is an available alternative to resignation. `Progress is possible' she says, `and it is up to individuals to make it happen'. This may overlook the question of whether the institutions help or hinder this pursuit but it is undeniably a refreshing optimism for humanity.
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on 12 June 2008
"I was stunned by the claim that voters chose George Bush because they cared about moral values. Either they had been bamboozled or the left had dramatically failed,"

Neiman analyses how the Right has seemingly managed to lay claim to traditional moral values. "Western secular culture has no clear place for moral language, and its use makes many profoundly uncomfortable." In the process "...concepts have been abandoned to the right: good and evil, hero and dignity and nobility."

While the post-60s Left abandoned high ideals and became preoccupied with identity politics they lost ground to an increasingly impassioned and intellectual Right that has gained the moral high ground: "Through organizations like the Olin Foundation, Midwestern businessmen who made their fortunes producing chemicals and telephones were sponsoring seminars in the mountains of Hungary on the nature of evil, or flying scholars to Chicago to discuss law and virtue... As the right was completing its study of the classics, the left was facing conceptual collapse."

Neiman offers a way forward - or at least a part - by calling upon Liberals to reread the classic texts. She gives retellings of the The Book of Job and The Odyssey (which are worth buying the book for in themselves - certainly for someone like me who never read them in the first place!) and shows how these classic moral tales demonstrate that alongside the Left's virtues of tolerance, ecumenism, universalism, justice as equality, and the rights of individuals we should include resoluteness, stoicism, loyalty, dignity, nobility and heroism, and not just yield these to the Right (and to the increasingly worrying NeoCons).

An excellent and very readable book (if a bit long) that wins top marks from me for its original approach to a traditionally dry subject. She's someone to watch. Here she paraphrases Kant: "Not pleasure but justice can move human beings to deeds that overcome the strongest of animal desires, the love of life itself. And contemplating this is as dizzying as contemplating the heavens above us: with this kind of power, we are as infinite as they are."
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on 8 December 2010
If we believe in God then we must love morality, and most importantly - moral clarity. This is how the book starts. The central idea being that morality matters, and how we deal with morality affects our whole worldview.

The book itself is divided into 13 chapters.

1. This chapter assesses the typical political ideologies of the left and the right. Most noticeably it is an assessment of Hobbes' and Hegel's political theories.
2. This chapter looks at Hobbes' and Thrasymachus' worldviews. The central theme being: is the world is getting better or worst. Most noticeably it is an assessment of pre and post millennial theory.
3. This chapter considers Kant's Moral Law. I found this chapter most enlightening specifically with regards the argument that the current culture wars are actually a war between fundamentalism (in all forms) versus freedoms, human dignity and self-accepted traditional values.
4. This chapter considers what the Enlightenment actually was. Anyone who has read the unjust polemics of people like Hitchens should specifically read this chapter. The central thesis is that the enlightenment far from trying to eliminate God was actually trying to safeguard his "otherness" by exposing unwarranted superstitions. It also aimed to tackle torture and privilege whilst promoting promotion through merit as well as reverence for the universe.
5. This chapter considers the different moral approaches proposed by Kant and Hume. Specifically this chapter considers the differences between is and ought, or the metaphysical conflicts of empiricism and idealism.
6. This chapter simply asks: is happiness a goal of life? The central argument is considered alongside the book of Job. The question being asked is: is happiness self made, or guaranteed by nature.
7. This chapter considers, what is reason. The central argument is: what is sufficient reason, i.e. the idea that everything should have a reason (a notion that cannot be proved by physical evidence). Reason here works as a fishnet and a calculator. Nevertheless, reason is limited and should never be considered as all encompassing (news to many reductionists I'm sure).
8. This chapter is an assessment of whether the enlightenment "killed god". The central argument is that most of the enlightenment's proponents were deists who wished to promote gratitude for creation, rather than promote superstitious idols. Rather than kill God, the enlightenment was in fact attempting to safeguard his transcendence.
9. This chapter is asks the question: is the world getting better or worse? This argument is run through the lens of evolutionary theory and the doctrine of original sin. Both lens are rejected on the basis that we do not have access to any historical moral states and therefore both lens should be ditched in favour of a, "what should we do in the future" type lens. This is not to say that things will get better, but that if we don't try it certainly won't. This is perhaps why this chapter is entitled "Hope".
10. This chapter considers the conflict between nature and reason. This is done by considering the Odyssey. The central argument is that heroes and their heroic deeds are dead, and that in the modern world focus rests on the victim and their shame. Whilst the author thinks this good she also stresses that we must return to the state where good deeds matter. The reason she concludes that they don't at present is because heroism usually leads to the hero's death (e.g. Martin Luther King) - and obviously there are few of us who would want that to be us.
11. This chapter was perhaps the most enjoyable. The chapter looks at what is evil/the problem of evil. The central argument is that evil is what people do and not just the motives that are behind their actions. Even doing nothing can be considered evil. We know evil exists because it is the gap that exists between our ideals (the ought) and realism (the is). The central question is: how do we combat it?
12. This chapter provides some examples of people whom the author considers to be good moral people. It also provides examples of the things that they are doing to try make the world a better place.
13. Finally, this chapter concludes that life is hard and man suffers. He is not always rewarded for his moral goodness, but he is nevertheless called to distinguish between good and evil, between is and ought. Life is important and so we must try our bests to be moral people. This type of morality is not mandated by God, but rather must be self-determined through reason. The author says that this is where the bible could be helpful. Her reasoning is that bible is not always moral, and sometimes it is - in fact the book shows a moral conflict of sorts, between moral clarity and the real world. The point being is that only man can determine his moral clarity through his own struggles, and if you truly love God then doing so is your duty. In this way man is called to question everyone's moral judgments (even the God of the bibles judgment) in order to be the best we can.

Overall, reading this book was a highlight for me. Whilst the author is clearly not very religious she has clearly written a book that can appeal both to the secular and the religious in turn. In doing so she shows a great deal of dignity and respect for all humans. The reason she gives for this is that if you love humanity then you must love everything that man does. As everyone is worthy of dignity everyone must be treated in this fashion. If you fail to do so then don't moan when the shoe is on the other foot, a precedent is a precedent. This style of writing really shone through for me, and was such a breath of fresh air.

My one complaint is that the author does have a tendency to carry on and on about certain points. Where 1 or 2 reasons for an argument would have surfaced she offers double, and in some cases triple that amount. This does make certain parts of the book seem longer than they need be. Nevertheless, the writing prose was easy to follow, and whilst heavily philosophical some chapters drew me in enough to make the book a bit of a page turner.

My final concluding comment is that this book has perhaps made me re-think my moral prerogatives. The book has promoted me to think differently and pay a little more attention to my life and most noticeably the things that I do in life. Because of this I thoroughly rate the book.
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on 8 September 2009
I really enjoyed this book. It was very sprightly written (more like a newspaper columnist than an academic) and is a very easy introduction to Enlightenment thought. It has surprising angles on a whole host of the usual suspects - Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau etc - but particularly Kant, who is a bit of a hero to her (and, now, to me). It sets out to give heart to "liberals" by showing that their concerns - or indignations - are based on the very idea of reason, which in turn depends on seeing the difference between how things are and how they might be. She uses Kant to look at the difference between how things are and how the should be, and indicates this is a liberating, essentially human capacity. It was great. My only criticisms are (a) she too obviously follows an American "party line" (all the usual check boxes - Iraq, climate, healthcare) - there are surely many public moral issues that do not concern Americans (b) her reading of the Enlightenment is basically that it was what America was all about (c)she sometimes continues chirping along when the point is already well made. Good fun, though.
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on 14 May 2010
I'll try not to repeat what others have already very ably said and will keep it brief. If you are a left of centre liberal type who remembers what it was like as a teenager to be told by miserable old gits (often in your own family) that 'the world is rotten, get your head out of the clouds, one day you will be realistic like me'...then this is the tonic you have been looking for. Uplifting, positive message that educates the reader about the finer points of the enlightenment and its consequences. A very lucid tract that inspires hope. I found myself re-reading much of it as the author managed to pack so much into each line. Although she writes primarily from a U.S. standpoint the book is very relevant to the U.K., particularly after the T.I.N.A. (Thatcher) years and the disappointment of the recently deceased Labour government's performance. There IS an alternative to being a money-grabbing, stressed out consumer junky. Buy it.
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on 5 February 2010
This book deals with moral seriousness.It sets aside oversimplification and dogmatism(biblical or otherwise) with the aim of recovering the vocabulary of morality-reason,reverence,evil and hope.

It enables us to face today's urgent questions with some conviction and integrity.

One of the best books that I have ever read!
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excellent !
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on 10 June 2013
This just came through the post, and will not be finishing, here are some reasons. Every page is a patchwork, though broth seems a more appropriate term, of quotes, references, and sometimes just name drops. As a result the book possesses a showy intellectualism of the 'I've read more than you!' nature. Not particularly analytic, which I would have expected from a philosophy book, arguments are thin on the ground and assertions are everywhere, opposing views are mentioned yet unexplored. Oh and the near sycophantic style, with sentences of the ilk :'the stories are only pages apart, but worlds apart in their message' very profound; or 'palette of platitudes'. Urgh, clearly the same 'palette' was used in writing this, no wonder everyone gave up on morality.
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