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The Worthy House Posts

Book Review: Republics Ancient & Modern, Vol. 2: New Modes & Orders in Early Modern Political Thought
(Paul Rahe)

To my surprise, I found this to be an extremely topical book, even though it discusses only people long dead.  It bridges, or at least brings more clarity to the framework of, recent bestselling books such as Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed and Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.  The former claims that the Enlightenment was a mistake and is now playing out its bitter end.  The latter, conversely, claims that the Enlightenment continues to make everything better, and will do so forever.  This book, twenty-five years old, makes no such claims about the future.  Rather, it tells us how we got here—how and why the West abandoned the Ancient Greek focus on virtue and political participation as the prime goals of a good life.  And the book addresses, without really meaning to, a current obsession of mine—to what degree is our current material prosperity, such that we not only have giant flat screen TVs, but, much more importantly, that we do not spend our days removing live Guinea worms slowly from our flesh, necessarily tied to the Enlightenment?  That is, in an alternate reality where the Enlightenment never happened, and we all lived in a West with the values, political and otherwise, of the High Middle Ages, what would our material lives look like?

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Book Review: How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life
(Seneca & James S. Romm)

How to Die, compiled from various writings of the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca by the excellent James Romm, assembles Seneca’s thoughts on death.  Seneca died during the reign of the emperor Nero, in A.D. 65, having been “encouraged” by him to commit suicide.  The reason for the compiling and publication of this book, presumably, is to educate moderns about how to die.  It also offers an interesting view into the philosophy of the late pagan Classical world, already dying itself, although Seneca didn’t know it.  This book can doubtless educate moderns, but for us, different than our predecessors, it is either valuable or dangerous, or both, depending on who is reading it and with what aim.


Book Review: Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America
(Cass Sunstein, ed.)

Cass Sunstein has gathered an ensemble cast of today’s intellectual Davoisie (several of whom taught me in law school) to tell us, in seventeen separate essays, whether Trump is the harbinger of American structural doom, and if so, how.  It is illuminating to read this book immediately after having read Glenn Reynolds’s The Judiciary’s Class War, with its distinction between the ruling Front-Row Kids and the ruled Back-Row Kids. This is because ultimately nearly all the authors presented here believe that “it” can’t, or is extremely unlikely to, “happen here,” because they expect the Front-Row Kids to be able to stop “it.”  That is, in different ways but with the same result, the authors expect that people just like them will continue to rule, Trump and the peasants be damned.

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Book Review: God Is Not Nice: Rejecting Pop Culture Theology and Discovering the God Worth Living For (Ulrich L. Lehner)

As I so often complain, the quality of modern discourse is atrocious.  Probably this is due to everyone being told for decades that his opinion always matters, along with a belief that democracy means all opinions are equally valid regardless of reasoning, capped off by modern avenues of communication that allow easy, free broadcasting of stupidity, when in the past dumb people had very limited ability to force the rest of us listen.  Worthless discourse exists across the political spectrum, of course, although that the Left dominates  popular media means the average person probably has to suffer more from being bathed in drivel from that side of the spectrum.  A subset of this general problem is that religious discourse is of equally low level, though rather (in most cases) being vicious irrationality, it is vacuous irrationality.  It is this vacuous irrationality, at its core the idea that God is “nice,” that Roman Catholic theologian Ulrich Lehner is here to dismantle, in this brief and accessible book.

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Book Review: Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power
(Meghan O’Sullivan)

A few weeks ago, I watched a bad movie on Netflix—The Cloverfield Effect.  This near-future science fiction film (distantly related to the original Cloverfield, an updated Godzilla-type movie) revolved around a disastrous attempt to generate unlimited energy in space, needed because the entire world was “two years from running out of all energy.”  Yes, that’s really as stupid as it sounds.  But Meghan O’Sullivan is here to tell us that just as stupid is the idea that we’re running out of fossil fuels, within any time frame that matters.  And she is further here to tell us what that means, for our economy, our global position, and for the future stability of the world, both geopolitically and environmentally.

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Book Review: The Judiciary’s Class War (Glenn Harlan Reynolds)

In this brief book, or rather pamphlet in the old political, Tom Paine-ish use of that term, law professor and well-known blogger Glenn Reynolds offers some thoughts on how the class structure of the judiciary affects judicial decisions.  Rather than focus on the general class divide in American society, Reynolds focuses on that divide in the judiciary, which he shows is deeper than that in America as a whole.  He believes the judicial divide is especially pernicious to our political system, and he offers some constructive solutions to the problem, although I think that those solutions both would be ineffective in practice and that the problems are deeper than Reynolds believes.

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Book Review: Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror
(Victor Sebestyen)

When we think of the Soviet Union, we mostly think of it as a fully realized totalitarian state.  We think of Stalin, of World War II and of the Cold War.  Lenin is a shadowy figure to most of us, usually lumped in with the chaos that preceded and surrounded the Russian Revolution.  As a result, biographies of Stalin and histories of the Cold War are a dime a dozen, but there are few objective biographies of Lenin.  Lenin, though, was the true author of Soviet totalitarianism, and, more importantly, he, and he alone, was the indispensable man to the creation of Communism as a realized state, even if he did not live to see it.  His life, therefore, is important, in that it illuminates history, and also in that it provides, in some ways, an instruction book for those seeking change today.


Book Review: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Steven Pinker)

As with Steven Pinker’s earlier The Better Angels of Our Nature, of which this is really an expansion and elucidation, I was frustrated by this book.  On the one hand, Pinker is an able thinker and clear writer, free of much of the ideological cant and distortions of vision that today accompany most writing about society (for society is what this book is about), and he is mostly not afraid to follow his reasoning to its conclusions.  His data on human progress is voluminous, persuasive, and extremely interesting.  On the other hand, Pinker regularly makes gross errors about history, some of little import, but some that undermine the entire thesis of his book—which is that that the Enlightenment is the sole cause of the human progress he illustrates.


Book Review: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (Edmund Morris)

This is a forty-year-old biography that is as fresh today as it was in the 1970s.  The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is the best-known of modern biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, although it only covers his life up to his accession to the Presidency, in 1901.  It wholly warrants its reputation—the writing is clear and compelling, the facts are relevant and interesting, and the author, Edmund Morris, treats the man through the lens of his time, not with any jarring ideological overlay imported from today.  The reader feels like he is practically living in the time, and that is a hard trick to pull off, especially for eight hundred pages.


Book Review: The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity
(Robert Louis Wilken)

I think Robert Louis Wilken is fantastic, but this is the weakest book of his that I have read.  It is not that it is bad, or wrong, or stupid, in any way.  It is that it falls into the genre I call “capsule history,” where many short chapters cover different happenings, and only a loose framework connects the chapters.  The result is that a reader can learn something, or can even learn quite a bit, but the experience is too much like reading an encyclopedia.  On the other hand, the book does consistently excel in one thing—communicating the loss suffered when Islam dominated or exterminated Christianity in its lands of first flourishing, from northern Africa to Mesopotamia.  And if you’re looking for a factual overview of the first thousand years of Christianity, you’ll certainly get it here.

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