Philip Bobbitt is best known for his earlier work The Shield of Achilles, a thousand-page work tracing the development of the modern state. This book, The Garments of Court and Palace, focuses more narrowly on the inception of the modern state, through the prism of Machiavelli’s writings. At the same time it claims to be a new interpretation and synthesis of Machiavelli’s thought, rejecting many widely held beliefs about it, including that he denied the importance of virtue and morality in politics. Bobbitt posits that Machiavelli instead had a specific conception of virtue, and he wrote with a precise constitutional purpose: he was the midwife of the European princely state, superseding the feudal state, and therefore the herald of the modern Western state, in all its versions.
This is a ferociously erudite book. The author, David Gress, offers an analysis and synthesis of essentially all thought on the idea of the West, from the Greeks to the postmodernists, in a book that seems to contain more than its actual six hundred pages of small print. The amount of thought he presents is astounding. My habit is to write down interesting-sounding books to which an author refers, then buy them. I probably bought thirty books, maybe more, as a result of reading From Plato to NATO. Every portion of this book was interesting—but still, paradoxically, it left me unable to write the type of review I typically write.
In these days of changing ways, so-called liberated days, it is not only political beliefs that are getting a fresh look from a lot of people, but beliefs about all aspects of human life. These include the beliefs of traditional Christians in America, whose options for Christ-centered communal worship within an organized framework narrow every day. The Roman church is both corrupt and led by that man of perdition, Jorge Bergoglio; the degradation of ecclesiastical Protestantism is complete; evangelicals offer only Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or obeisance to Trumpian caesaropapism. This leaves as the last institution standing the Orthodox Church, which shows no signs of trimming its sails to modernism and for whom Saint John Chrysostom might as well as have died yesterday. Hence the recent surge in popularity of this 2001 book, a modern exposition of Orthodox spirituality, written by a man with a foot in both the West and the East.
Among the many gaping holes in American historical knowledge is any grasp of the French Revolution (and that includes my own knowledge). As an abstract matter, this is unfortunate, but nothing notable, given that the historical knowledge of modern Americans is essentially one large gap. As a concrete matter, though, it is a real problem, because in our own troubled times, the French Revolution offers critical, universal lessons, which we forget to our peril. Nowhere is this more true than with respect to the Terror, the rule of the twelve-man Committee of Public Safety, from 1793-94, the subject of this classic 1941 work.
Exhaustively documented, and in some ways just exhausting, though at the same time exhilarating, Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is a towering achievement. It synthesizes centuries of history and multiple avenues of thought to analyze how we arrived at certain negative aspects of modernity. Gregory’s claim is that we got here as the result of the unintended consequences of choices made in response to “major, perceived human problems.” Those choices were, initially, the Reformation’s religious choices, which ran counter to the entire worldview of medieval Christianity. But the Reformation did not solve the problems—it made them worse, in a declining spiral, accelerated and exacerbated by subsequent secularization, itself partially the result of the Reformation. The result is a world in which the ability of humans to find meaning in their lives has been crippled, rather than enhanced. We would, implicitly, be better off with something more like the High Medieval synthesis destroyed by Martin Luther.
This book was once famous, but was mostly forgotten when Communism died and so-called liberal democracy seemed ascendant. It is increasingly famous again, and relevant, in these days of a new creeping totalitarianism, this time in the West itself. Such timelessness is the signature of a classic work, so my goal today is to explicate Václav Havel’s thought, and to show why its time has come round again.
The late William Manchester, master of twentieth century popular history, made his reputation with this book, published in 1968. There will never be another book on the Krupp family like it, and not just because it’s so long, nearly half a million words and a thousand pages. It is also because the Krupps are largely forgotten today, fifty years later—and because Manchester personally talked to nearly everyone in, and connected to, the Krupp family at its height, and those people are all dead. Just as dead is the firm itself, since the sole proprietorship that was “Krupp” no longer exists in that form or has any connection to the Krupp family. Sic transit gloria mundi, if “gloria” is the right word.
Oh, but this is a fascinating book. Written in 1930 by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, it is one of those books that is occasionally mentioned, especially recently, but rarely actually read. 1930, in Spain, was the hinge of fate, and it has been nearly a hundred years since Ortega wrote. That means we can see where he was wrong, and where he was right, and what he wrote says to us today.
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 …
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.