What I've Been Reading | October 2023
John Stuart Mill, Parenting, and the Sexual Revolution
📖 Autobiography by John Stuart Mill
I love the beginning of this book. Mill read ancient Greek at 3, Latin at 8, much of Greco-Roman literature by 10, and helped his father proof A History of India when he was 12.
He also began reading Plato at 12:
It was at this period that I read, for the first time, some of the most important dialogues of Plato, in particular the Gorgias, the Protagoras, and the Republic. There is no author to whom my father thought himself more indebted for his own mental culture, than Plato, or whom he more frequently recommended to young students. I can bear similar testimony in regard to myself. The Socratic method, of which the Platonic dialogues are the chief example, is unsurpassed as a discipline for correcting the errors, and clearing up the confusions incident to the intellectus sibi permissus, the understanding which has made up all its bundles of associations under the guidance of popular phraseology.
intellectus sibi permissus = the mind left to itself
The book defends an ambitious and serious education program, with Mill’s life as proof of its success. Much is possible when geniuses are treated as adults. Slow is fake. There is no speed limit.
It’s also a picture of a good life. Liberalism is often taken to be a thin philosophy – a purely political thing that doesn’t have any account of what it is to live well. Just stay out of everyone’s way. Mill’s harm principle lends itself to that reading. I don’t think that’s right. Though liberalism may be broad, that appearance overrates how permissive liberalism is and underrates how permissive other philosophies of life are.
Christianity has a clear definition of what it is to live a good life. But ideas like “finding your calling” or vocation are compatible with millions of different kinds of lives, each deeply varied.
Mill himself portrays just how important it is for the liberal to constantly be educating themselves. Education, of some variety, is essential to living well. If you’re not learning, you’re wasting away and living an illiberal life.
I was provoked to re-read this after seeing Harry Oliver was hosting a reading club on it. He also wrote a nice piece on Harriet Taylor, we have a brief exchange in the comments:
📖 John Stuart Mill: A Very Short Introduction by Gregory Claeys
Largely reasonable. It corrects misreadings and properly situates John Stuart Mill’s key themes in his life. Useful to skim through while reading Mill.
📖 No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame by Janet Julian
A helpful book on parenting. If I were to summarize it quickly, it’s all about raising young children without moralizing stories. There are two kinds of stories we’re tempted to tell: one’s about the moral value of a kid's behavior and others that subtly erases a parent's agency.
Think about and communicate with kids directly. Save the verbal ethical lessons for later. This means favor saying “I won’t like you hit” instead of the less direct “We won’t hit here” – and then don't let them hit.
Define boundaries in a firm and friendly way. When children act out, try to understand how their behavior is rooted in a need. Acknowledge who they are and how they feel.
Of course, this book is also a useful frame for managing yourself and other adults.
📖 Natural Right and History by Leo Strauss
Several people I hold in high regard do the same for Leo Strauss. But, to be frank, I’ve had a difficult time getting much insight out of his work. This work has interesting notes on Cicero, especially his relation to Stoicism.
I will likely turn back to him down the line. He’s spent a significant amount of time thinking about classic texts. He’s a sensitive reader. But this specific set of lectures, I may not return to.
📖 The Case Against the Sexual Revolution by Louise Perry
Directionally correct. Very well written. Has serious shortcomings. The substance of the book can be inferred from the table of contents:
Sex must be taken seriously
Men and women are different
Not all desires are good
Loveless sex is not empowering
Consent is not enough
Violence is not love
People are not products
Marriage is good
Nearly all of these are correct and prudent. If you’re looking for a secular account of traditional sexual morality and life strategies this book is a fine place to start.