A few millennia ago, when philosophy got its start in the Greek world, a critical question of thinkers from Plato to Aristotle was how men and women could create "the good life."
For the ancients, the question and the answer never assumed material comforts were enough. But neither did the wiser ones discount the importance of wealth in its assistance to a happy life. Aristotle, the empiricist that he was, thought money was a critical part of a decent, comfortable existence. (The lack of money, as any university student or anyone who has grown up in a disadvantaged environment well knows, is a stressor.)
But beyond monetary concerns – at least for those who desire to ponder matters below the everyday surface of life – the good life also entails other activities, both personal and between men, women and nations.
All of this work – pondering and activity – is reflected in a relatively new journal. The brainchild of several thoughtful Canadians who know the importance of ideas for their effect on culture, it's worth perusing.
The Dorchester Review, published twice a year, is a historical and literary journal that does a marvelous job of bringing together insightful writers and diverse topics in one package. It is a feast for the thoughtful.
For example, in one recent issue, Robert Noriega, a former U.S. state department official, reviews a book on Canada-Cuba relations over the last 50 years.
As most readers likely know, Pierre Trudeau was solicitous of the island's dictator as some sort of liberator, a position the Canadian left still holds in the face of all contrary evidence over the last five decades.
In fact, as Noriega nicely details, Fidel Castro was merely the replacement of one banana republic autocrat with another. Pre-Castro Cuba was more egalitarian than post-Castro Cuba.
"The island republic that Castro took over in 1959 was one of the most prosperous and egalitarian societies of the Americas near the top according to most socio-demographic indicators, behind only Argentina and Uruguay," writes Noriega.
In a fine debate about Canadian history and how best to display it, Canadian historian Jack Granatstein and former Parks Canada military curator Robert Henderson square off over whether the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa has been improved or dumbed down. (Granatstein says the former; Henderson, the latter.)
In another Dorchester issue, the practical and the poetic are both featured. Social scientist Gary Mauser looks at gun-control laws and asks if they are failures – and if so, why. Writer Donal Lowry waxes eloquently about D'Arcy McGee, whom he labels Canada's first poet.
Historian Andrew Roberts dives into Adolf Hitler's mind and asserts that, contrary to the myth espoused in Britain and other western democracies in the interwar period, the Fuhrer's intentions and his thinking were no "riddle" to be deciphered.
"There was simply no stomach in the populaces of Britain, France or America to stand up to Hitler's encroachments from the remilitarization of the Rhineland in March 1936 onward."
In other words, concludes Roberts, the politicians were only doing what democracies are meant to do: "carry out the will of the people."
The list of Dorchester Review contributors is long, but here a few other favourites: National Post columnist George Jonas, who recently wrote a useful synopsis of why socialism still attracts people, despite its multiple failures. (It is a question some British Columbians might well ask themselves right about now.)
Gil Troy, a visiting professor at McGill University, delves in the hyperactive notion in some quarters that Zionism is akin to racism. It is a slur popular in too many academic quarters and in some unions – and apparently, as of late, in the head of physicist Stephen Hawking. Troy looks back to the late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and his battles with such nonsense in the United Nations in the 1970s, when Moynihan was the U.S. ambassador to that international body.
Producing a journal with quality writers and intellectual heft is no easy feat. I edit one myself in my off-hours with a slightly different focus (C2C Journal), but both are worth reading.
In the case of the Dorchester Review (www.dorchesterreview.ca) it's not a beach read for everyone.
However, for those who like their summer reading with a touch of history, contrarianism and intellectual adventurism, it makes a worthwhile and stellar contribution to the advancement of the good life all on its own. •