Naïve Readings: Reveilles Political and Philosophic By Ralph Lerner

    In this book Professor Lerner examines and interprets selected writings of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Francis Bacon, Edward Gibbon, Alexis de Tocqueville, and the Jewish philosophers Halevi and Maimonides in a careful and fresh manner. His conclusion is stated in the final paragraph of the book:

    What then, finally, do I now detect to be the plain but barely stated message these heterogeneous texts all would promote, not only among their authors’ immediate contemporaries but also in any who might encounter their words in some unforeseeable time and place? Whatever might have been these authors’ private or public views about divine providence—and they assuredly did differ—their texts exhibit and enact a noteworthy consensus as regards human providence. Passivity and feckless behavior, not to speak of fatalistic acceptance, are rejected out of hand. Notwithstanding our limited understanding and finite powers, we are not absolved, individually or collectively, from confronting and mitigating as best we can the difficulties and dangers that life on earth poses to our flourishing. . . . One might well believe that the larger order of things is mysterious and that our place in that order is beyond our scrutiny, let alone our mastery. And yet none of our authors refrains on that account from speaking and writing— which is to say, from acting. That decision to act bespeaks a shared judgment: for all its vanity, ambition, and self-preening, our species hardly stands in need of being confirmed in a sense of helplessness and futility. Rather, our potentialities for excellences of various kinds are not to be ignored or squandered. To that extent, at least, the lesson conveyed by a naïve reading of these texts is that, singly and collectively, we have our work cut out for us. We might take that to be these authors’ enduring compliment and challenge to all who would read their words.

    Enough said. Ralph Lerner

    One sure fact of humanity is that we all cherish our opinions and will often strongly resist efforts by others to change them. Philosophers and politicians have long understood this, and whenever they have sought to get us to think differently they have often resorted to forms of camouflage that slip their unsettling thoughts into our psyche without raising alarm. In this fascinating examination of a range of writers and thinkers, Ralph Lerner offers a new method of reading that detects this camouflage and offers a way toward deeper understandings of some of history’s most important—and most concealed—messages.
    Lerner analyzes an astonishing diversity of writers, including Francis Bacon, Benjamin Franklin, Edward Gibbon, Judah Halevi, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Moses Maimonides, and Alexis de Tocqueville. He shows that by reading their words slowly and naïvely, with wide-open eyes and special attention for moments of writing that become self-conscious, impassioned, or idiosyncratic, we can begin to see a pattern that illuminates a thinker’s intent, new messages purposively executed through indirect means. Through these experimental readings, Lerner shows, we can see a deep commonality across writers from disparate times and situations, one that finds them artfully challenging others to reject passivity and fatalism and start thinking afresh.    
    Naïve Readings: Reveilles Political and Philosophic

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