A disturbing moral dilemma is explored by the noted Nigerian writer. In the first and by far the weightiest of the three essays that make up this volume, Nobel laureate Soyinka (Art, Dialogue and Outrage, 1994, etc.) struggles with a dilemma: how should societies respond to the commission of despicable acts in public life? These can occur on a systemic level, such as slavery in the US or apartheid in South Africa, or through the hands of an individual tyrant such as the current ruler of Nigeria, Sanni Abacha. In either case, forgiveness, a salve on the wounds to promote healing, would seem to be the morally superior option, even if such generosity is beyond the capabilities of most people. But is excusing morally outrageous behavior moral or simply foolish? Perhaps healing requires revenge, an excising of the cancer. Are we to imagine, for example, a repentant Pol Pot walking the streets like any other man, freed by the forgiveness of those whom he did not manage to kill? Soyinka identifies forgiveness as “a value far more humanly exacting than vengeance” yet cannot swallow the proposition that it will, by itself, suffice. Something is missing from a process which absolves the perpetrators of tyranny so completely that they assume the same moral or civil status as those whose conduct is crime-free. Soyinka’s answer is reparations, a paying back from victimizer to victim, but even this sits somewhat uneasily. As in the remaining essays focusing on negritude, there is a sense that the playwright in Soyinka is building layers of thought not to resolve the issue, but to illustrate its unresolvability. No definitive analysis proving that reparations will solve the moral dilemma is to be found here, and perhaps that is part of the cost of despicable acts: once committed, there are no longer answers with which we should be completely comfortable. Powerful stuff. (For another look at these questions, see Martha Minow, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, p. 1438.)

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-19-512204-4

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1998

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.


A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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