A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut

A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A man without a country is a connoisseur of humanity, appreciating the universality of sentiment and reason common to all humankind beyond the demarcation of the territorial, cultural, and racial ambits. In that regard, Kurt Vonnegut is not only a great American writer but also an honorable citizen of the world.

Vonnegut was liberal and socialist without being Marxist, but he was also a traditionalist and Christian without being conservative and religious. He was on the side of the underdogs because he regarded himself as one by being a kind of black sheep in the literary circles for his studying engineering, not English literature. However, he wasn’t a grumpy sullen dark literary figure but a funny, talkative writer who stroke conversations with anyone in daily life. Vonnegut refused to lose his days in unsocial solitude and decided to become – as Samuel Johnson called – the sun in his evening declination, remitting his splendor and maintaining his magnitude, pleasing more, though intimidating less.

A Man without a Country is a charming little book packed with thoughts, wits, and knowledge. Vonnegut was only a human because he saw the heart of human nature and wanted to help people bring it out and nourish it thus: “To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.” Vonnegut was a writer who practiced what he preached. So why not read this book by such a writer?










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Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis by Jared Diamond – book review

Jared Diamond’s Upheaval analyzes why a nation is how it is now. Of course, culture plays a role in changing the ethos of each new zeitgeist. Still, it is not so much a differentiating element as a distinguishing factor to characterize a national character. Instead, it is a mindset of individuals, including the governing elites in the nation, that determine the success and stagnation of the nation’s progress.

Of all nations’ approaches to and results of political and sociological revolutions, the most successful example is Japan’s Meiji Restoration in the 19th century and democratization in the aftermath of WWII, both of which are one-of-a-kind upheavals yielding to outstanding progress. Japan’s confrontation with the West might have blown their isolated cultural prestige. However, rather than coiling in fear of the changes, Japan sprang back with new attitudes adapted from Europe’s and the U.S.’s technological development and cultural legacy to survive the new zeitgeist as the time’s juggernaut.

On the other hand, the United States today needs change because it is highly polarized by political affiliations, ideological inclinations, and racial stratifications. The U.S. seems to have lurched in the above marsh when it should focus on the constructive, substantial, and realistic aspects of political agenda and social movements. For example, Americans tend more to ideas than facts that collectively affect individual needs, such as universal healthcare, a better educational system, employment opportunities, housing assistance, welfare programs, and workers’ rights. It s because American politicians aim to mobilize an army of people, aka constituents, to win their ideological war for occupying more congressional seats. In fact, American exceptionalism, that America is the best of all other countries in the world, averts the eyes from the lessons from other countries simply because they are beneath.

Diamond is a polymath well versed in science, literature, philosophy, geography, psychology, and sociology. He talks about his family, students, and friends from other countries. He is no stranger to their cultures with the knowledge of the languages and cultural cues, which entitles him to an appellation of “a citizen of the world.” This book reads persuasive and perspicacious, among other books on similar subjects. Maybe I am biased, but if the man whose assessment of nations strikes my chord, then I can’t help it.

Aristotle’s Way by Edith Hall

Tolstoy in Anna Kararina knows a thing about the Aristotelian school of subjective happiness thus: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its way.” Happiness is an antidote to depression out of hopelessness and envies out of disappointment in a purely subjective sense. It requires only self-will to choose the light and to follow it by constantly taming your brittle spirit via lifelong habit until you find a sense of why you are here in this world. If you doubt it as a cliche, then meet Aristotle, the student of Plato, who was the student of Socrates, and the private tutor of Alexander. 

Along with his great predecessor Socrates, Aristotle was a thinker who billeted Philosophy from the heavens at the houses of mortals so that she could show them how to cope with the harsh realities of the world that discombobulated a sense of purpose in life. Aristotle’s main concern was that people weighed heavily on the outward material success as a sign of well-being and a carte blanche to happiness, which would lead people astray with a sense of emptiness inside. For example, we can’t know if all those glossy selfies on Facebook and Instagram reflect the real lives of those uploading them. Or the lives of Hollywood stars who predicate on images and styles are not, in fact, worth admiration, as revealed in the recent defamation trial of Depp v. Heard, in which Depp’s braggadocio of recalcitrant drug and alcohol uses combined with alarmingly repulsive backstage personality, is simply disgraceful. On the contrary, the Uber drivers I have come across appear to be more satisfied with their lives, content with their independent work mode, and love of families. This Aristotle refers to a state of eudaimonia, a feeling of bliss, however small it is, because it comes from a higher sense of pleasantness from within. 

Of course, Aristotle’s way is not instant magic and may not show visible effects in one fell swoop, but it is a long-term remedy like a physical therapy that will show improvement. Aristotle’s way is not fanciful but practical with two recipes for the malady of hearts: (1) to keep everything in moderation, called the “Golden Mean”; and (2) training yourself continuously and actively to do the right thing like a habit. Aristotle reminds us that excellence is not an act but a habit. This happiness school parallels Emerson’s dictum that thinking is the function, and action is the functionary. So this is Aristotle’s simple but sophisticated stairways to your happiness, and I think it’s worth trying. No wonder his student Alexander became great.