Book Review: The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science


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Examining Aristotle with wonder, admiration and scholarly attention to detail, biology professor Armand Marie Leroi creates a fascinating account of how he thinks Aristotle invented science in The Lagoon (Viking, $27.95), which goes on sale this week.

The writing is excellent because it serves the storytelling. So, while this is a meticulous work, it is not pompous or too technical, though of course this depends upon one’s interest in and knowledge of science. Teeming with questions about reality, nature and life, London-based BBC commentator and science writer Leroi delivers a leisurely, structured narrative of Aristotle’s favorite subject, biology, and Aristotle’s focus on the animal’s life. Retracing geographic points of study and discovery, he covers Aristotle’s writings in detail, errors and breathtaking observations and advancements alike, with reverence for the father of Western philosophy.

For example, after taking the reader through citations, tales and journeys into Aristotle’s pursuits, Leroi concludes that Aristotle’s ethics underscore his passion and amount to the idea that:

The best way that a man can spend his life is in contemplation for that has no utilitarian goal; it’s pleasurable in itself. Elsewhere [Aristotle] relates a story. Someone asked Anaxagoras what was the point of being born, to which the great physiologos replied: ‘to study the order and heaven of the whole cosmos’. The answer rang true to Aristotle; he told the story at least twice. But he warns that none of us can ever achieve a life of pure contemplation. There are so many things, the mundane things of everyday life, and the human things—the sense is disparaging—that distract us from the divine life of the mind. Nevertheless, we should ‘strain every sinew’ to ignore them and devote ourselves to pure reason. That is where true happiness lies.”

For his part, Leroi observes that: “Had I a God—had I a God—it would be Aristotle’s God.” The Lagoon finishes telling a compelling story, which is really a tale of Western civilization, about renting buildings at the Lyceum, teaching and, always, seeking to know more to live life here on earth.

“In our day,” Lerio asks in conclusion, “philosophers and scientists are distinct academic castes with distinct ways of arguing. But who is to say that, more than two thousand years ago, a man could not be both at once?” With glossaries, appendices, notes, bibliography (including a volume by Aristotelian scholar Robert Mayhew) and an index, The Lagoon is an Aristotle story well discovered, considered and told.

Books: Malcolm X by Manning Marable

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In Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking, 2011), Manning Marable (1950–2011) presents what appears to be a thorough and meticulous account of his subject, the assassinated black Moslem leader known as Malcolm X. That Marable, who unfortunately died days before the book’s publication, brings impressive credentials to his work—he was a professor of African American studies, history and public affairs at Columbia University, served as founding director of Columbia’s Black History center and is the author of 15 books—underscores the question of why the press and their favored black intellectuals all but ignored this volume, which was published last year with hardly any coverage.

Marable, who had taught The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with, and arguably authored by, Alex Haley (Roots) during Marable’s seminar at Ohio State, had the audacity to approach his topic with real curiosity. So he sheds new light on the facts surrounding Malcolm X’s unsolved assassination, which he hints may have involved the FBI. He further enlightens readers about Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, whom he states advocated Malcolm X’s death. In one of Marable’s more trivial assertions, which has sadly tapped anti-gay prejudice among blacks, he tells us in a brief passage that his subject had been a hustler who probably had sex with men.

There is much to learn here about Malcolm X, whose views are likely to shock many on the left and the right, tracing his origins as an East Coast vagabond through his conversion to Islam, the religion of submission to God, and his advocacy of racial segregation—so-called black separatism—his early alliances with Moslems in Africa and his affiliation with, and split from, the Nation of Islam, a group which continues to exist in the United States with connections to Islamists. It’s a fascinating story, based on interviews with Farrakhan and Malcolm X’s letters and diaries, tracing 20th century American politics and culture, and it is impossible not to make crucial connections to today’s news and events. Not only does one gain insights into the man born Malcolm Little and how he went from birth in Omaha to being arrested in Detroit and assassinated in 1965 by fellow Moslems at the Harlem place where Duke Ellington and Count Basie had played, one will become better acquainted with the sordid story of post-slavery black Americans, once known as Negroes, from Frederick Douglass to Marcus Garvey to Martin Luther King, Jr. (whom Malcolm X sought to differentiate himself from) to today’s entrenched black intellectuals.

We learn that Alex Haley was a liberal Republican. That the Islamic terrorist-supporting Rev. Farrakhan was raised as an Episcopalian and discovered Islam as a Calypso singer known as Louis Eugene Walcott in Chicago at a nightclub called the Blue Angel. That on the night when thousands of federal troops were occupying the University of Mississippi to ensure the enrollment of a Negro named James Meredith, Malcolm X was on talk radio denouncing interracial marriage. But above all in this apparently straightforward and honest biography by an intellectual who expresses gratitude for Malcolm X, one comes away with a spine-chilling report on the insidious spread of collectivism—and an inextricable black American link to Islamism—that haunts us still.

That the man who mainstreamed anti-American Moslems in America was downed by Moslems in America is but one of several twists that make more sense in reading Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, an ambitious book with a glossary, notes, photographs, index and bibliography.

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Movie Review: Malcolm X

Buy Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention