Philosophy

Shinto: The Kami Way by Dr. Sokyo Ono

Date of Publication: 1962, Tuttle Publishing

Number of Pages: 112

Synopsis (from back cover): Shinto, the indigenous faith of the Japanese people, continues to fascinate and mystify both the casual visitor to Japan and the long-time resident. This introduction unveils Shinto’s spiritual characteristics and discusses the architecture and function of Shinto shrines. Further examination of Shinto’s lively festivals, worship, music, and sacred regalia illustrates Shinto’s influence on all levels of Japanese life.

Fifteen photographs and numerous drawings introduce the reader to two millenia of indigenous Japanese belief in the kami – the sacred spirits worshiped in Shinto – and in communal life, the way of the kami.

Review: As someone who is interested in all things Japanese, I was really excited to read Dr. Sokyo Ono’s Shinto: The Kami Way. This book is held as the standard introduction to Shinto for Western readers, and for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed. The author, a recognized expert on the subject, presents Shinto to the reader in plain, simple language. The bare essentials of Shinto are explored, including the architecture and layout of Shinto shrines and the rituals and festivals that are celebrated within. Unfortunately, I was seeking a more philosophical discussion of Shinto, and the author really only includes a short chapter in the back of the book that delves into the actual beliefs of Shinto. Still, the influence of Shinto on the daily life of the Japanese is addressed throughout the book and gives Western readers a glimpse into the way the Japanese have evolved along with their indigenous beliefs. I would recommend this book to all readers interested in world religions and philosophies. This is definitely a must-read for anyone who hopes to understand the Japanese people even a little bit.

Rating: 7/10

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Germinal by Émile Zola

Date of Publication: 1885 (my edition, 1998 Oxford World’s Classics)

Number of Pages: 524

Synopsis (from back cover): Zola’s masterpiece of working life, Germinal (1885), exposes the inhuman conditions of French miners in the 1860s. The central figure, Étienne Lantier, is an outsider who enters the community and eventually leads his fellow-miners in a strike against pay-cuts which becomes a losing battle against starvation, repression, and sabotage. Yet despite the violence and disillusion which rock the mining community to its foundations, Lantier retains his belief in the ultimate germination of a new society, leading to a better world.

Germinal is a dramatic novel of working life, sexual desire, and everyday relationships, but it is also a complex novel of ideas, given fresh vigour and power in this new translation.

Review: For those who don’t know, Germinal is the month of April on the Revolutionary calendar, instituted in France in the late eighteenth century. The idea of germination, the springing forth of new life, pervades the entire story, and it is rich with symbolism throughout. Étienne, a newcomer who quickly becomes the leader of the workers’ rebellion, literally plants the seeds of socialism and the promise of a new world order in the minds of these otherwise simple miners. But throughout the book, the lives of the miners remain bleak, going from simply struggling to make each day’s soup and constantly running out of coffee, to simply dying from starvation during the strike, which lasts for more than two months.

But in spite of their poverty and general misery, the miners still enjoy a level of freedom that the bourgeoisie, whole live a life of idleness and ignorance among their workers, do not. They are free to openly engage in sexual activities, which is something that is absolutely forbidden to the upper classes. Even the manager of the mine, M. Hennebeau, as he looks out his window at the swarm of strikers, envies them for their emotional freedom, his own marriage being nothing more than a loveless sham.

There are events in the book that will shock the uninformed reader. The miners regularly beat their wives and children, and the mothers look on their children as little more than wage-earners in some respects. A reader must place himself in the period and environment in which this story takes place. These mining families are holding on with both hands, and struggle everyday just to simply survive. So it’s no wonder that when a child’s legs are crushed in a tragic mining accident, his mother laments the loss of his income more than his injuries and pain. In the end, this book simply shows that the will to survive, and to achieve a just world, can conquer anything.

Rating: 10/10

Philosophical Dictionary by Voltaire

Disclaimer: Since I’ve started school, my reading time has been spent primarily on textbooks. This is one of them. I want to assure you all, though, that I will be reading fascinating things this semester and that I will review them all for this blog. Also, there are some books that have been sent to me by publishers in good faith, and I hope to have them all read and reviewed very soon. So, if you notice large gaps of time in between reviews, just know that I am feverishly reading all my assigned texts and reading everything else in between essays. Now, on with the review!

Philosophical Dictionary by Voltaire

Translated by Theodore Besterman

Date of Publication: 1764 (my edition, 2004 by Penguin Books)

Number of Pages: 400

Synopsis (from back cover): Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, first published in 1764, is a series of short, radical essays, which form a brilliant and bitter analysis of the social and religious conventions that dominated eighteenth-century French thought. One of the masterpieces of the Enlightenment, this enormously influential work of sardonic wit – more a collection of essays arranged alphabetically than a conventional dictionary – considers such diverse subjects as Abraham and Atheism, Faith and Freedom of Thought, Miracles and Moses. Repeatedly condemned by civil and religious authorities, Voltaire argues passionately for the cause of reason and justice, and criticizes Christian theology and contemporary attitudes towards war and society – and claims, as he regards the world around him: “common sense is not so common”.

Review: The issues explored in this book are still relevant today. I found myself agreeing with a lot of his views, especially those on Tolerance and Beauty. His definition of beauty, of its relativism, is often repeated today: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This is of course true, but often forgotten in today’s Hollywood-obsessed world. We are barraged by images of stick-thin models and actresses and told that this is the standard of beauty. The truth is, there is no standard of beauty. Even Voltaire, almost 250 years ago, understood this.

His views on Tolerance, however, are even more relevant today. In our deeply divided society, it’s becoming more and more obvious that there is a lack of tolerance. I even admit that I have had a less than tolerant attitude toward certain right-wing politicians. Voltaire also states, quite emphatically, that Christians, although their religion preaches tolerance, are actually the most intolerant people in the world. Again, I agree with this statement and believe it remains true today. I believe there is too much self-righteousness and a quickness to proselytize in modern Christianity that takes away from its message of love, peace, and yes, tolerance.

These were not the only essays that touched me. The entire book is filled with diverse subjects, and will surely appeal to a wide range of modern readers. You don’t have to agree with all his views to appreciate Voltaire’s intelligence and quick wit. I recommend this to anyone who is interested in philosophy, history, or political science, and it was a wonderful treat to get to read this for class credit!

Rating: 9.5/10

Maiden, Mother, Crone: The Three Faces of the Goddess by D.J. Conway

Date of Publication: 1994

Number of Pages: 229, including index

Synopsis (from back cover): The feminine divine is the balancing principle that has been missing from our human spiritual evolution for too long. Maiden, Mother, Crone explores our lost but vital connection with the Goddess in all her diverse and glorious myths and archetypes, with goddess lore from around the world.

Meet Siren, Ceres, Freyja, and others as you become reacquainted with your inner goddess through understanding each aspect of her: Maiden, from infant to puberty; Mother, adult and parent; and Crone, the wise elder. The simple rituals and guided meditations will help you attain awareness and strengthm while a dictionary of mythic symbols lends practical support.

Review: This was my first foray into the realm of Goddess worship, and this book is great for beginners. Conway explains the three faces of the Goddess and why she was obliterated from modern religions. The book introduces you to the Goddess slowly, then delves not only into the details of each aspect, but provides numerous examples of each face of the Goddess from around the world. I found the similarities between goddess of Asia, America, Europe, and Africa to be quite startling. It seems that almost all cultures have recognized these three aspects of the Great Goddess, and had incorporated them into their mythologies. When patriarchal societies took over, many thousands of years ago, these goddesses were lost or demoted: a great tragedy.

I found myself identifying with all three faces of the Goddess, especially the Maiden. But each can correspond to all stages in life, and I found myself relating to all of them. The meditations and rituals were helpful as practical guides, as was the symbolic dictionary (you want to know what an Ankh is? Or the significance of a cauldron?). This book can show modern people, used to living in patriarchal societies, how to reconnect to the feminine divine in their lives, leading to a more peaceful existence. I would recommend this book to anyone who is ready to start that journey and bring the Goddess back into their lives.

Rating: 9/10

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Translation by Joachim Neugroschel

Date of Publication: 1922

Number of Pages: 132

Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

Synopsis: “Set in India, Siddhartha is the story of a young Brahmin’s search for ultimate reality after meeting with the Buddha. His quest takes him from a life of decadence to asceticism, through the illusory joys of sensual love with a beautiful courtesan, and of wealth and fame, to the painful struggles with his son and the ultimate wisdom of renunciation.” ~Blurb from back cover

Review: Like many people, I first read Siddhartha in high school as a part of my study of Buddhism and Hinduism. It wasn’t until this second reading that the book made an impression on me. Siddhartha is a young man who spends his life looking for the way to Nirvana. He begins in the forest, living a life of a samana, a wandering ascetic, begging for food and spending his days in meditation. His eventual meeting with the Buddha has an unexpected effect on him: he realizes that teachers cannot really teach him anything. Therefore, it is up to him to find his own way to salvation.

The book is short, and is made up of two parts, before the Buddha, and after the Buddha. Each chapter has a very particular meaning, and the plot is very well contained within. This adds to the story and gives it the feeling of a sacred text. Although most of the minor characters are not well-developed, it is very clear that their very existence is only to help Siddhartha on his journey. Otherwise, they are not important. Each character has something to give Siddhartha, and each adds to his understanding of the world and of himself.

This book will appeal to anyone interested in Eastern religions and philosophies, or to anyone who is themselves a spiritual pilgrim. It is very similar to Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist in its plot and feeling. It’s also easy for even a reader who is not familiar with religious doctrines or language – Hesse does a beautiful job of making the spiritual and philosophical content very clear and easy to understand. However, this does not mean that it has been “dumbed down” in any way. In fact, the writing is intelligent and evocative, and the story is wholly engrossing.

Rating: 9/10

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

Date of Publication: 1994

Synopsis: “This long, dense novel, a bestseller in the author’s native Norway, offers a summary history of philosophy embedded in a philosophical mystery disguised as a children’s book. Sophie Amundsen is about to turn 15 when she receives a letter from one Alberto Knox, a philosopher who undertakes to educate her in his craft. Sections in which we read the text of Knox’s lessons to Sophie about the pre-Socratics, Plato and St. Augustine alternate with those in which we find out about Sophie’s life with her well-meaning mother. Soon, though, Sophie begins receiving other, stranger missives addressed to one Hilde Moller Knag from her absent father, Albert. As Alberto Knox’s lessons approach this century, he and Sophie come to suspect that they are merely characters in a novel written by Albert for his daughter. Teacher and pupil hatch a plot to understand and possibly escape from their situation; and from there, matters get only weirder.” -Publishers Weekly

Review: This book was recommended reading by my 12th grade Humanities teacher, who asked the entire class to read it the summer before school started. I duly purchased it, but couldn’t get past the long section on Plato, and put it aside for possible future reading. I picked it up again about two years later, and for some reason, forced myself through the long, sometimes tedious lectures that Alberto gives Sophie and found an extremely compelling story underneath. I have since read it two more times, and each time I find myself more and more fascinated by the philosophical material and find myself now enjoying the stories of the great philosophers and thinkers in history. Although some may feel that this book is dry and dense, it really speaks to me, and should appeal to anyone who is interested in history, philosophy, or has ever asked themselves the questions, “Who am I?” and “Why is the world the way it is?”

Rating: 8.5/10