Etienne Gilson is one of those men who shot across the sky of the West in the first half of the twentieth century, and were mostly forgotten by the end of the century, thrown overboard in the general wreck of Christendom. He combined in his thought any number of now-unfashionable currents: a love for Roman Catholicism and high medievalism; a focus on Thomistic thought; a dislike for the downsides of the modern world; and many more. No wonder he has slipped from our memory, or more accurately, been erased by neglect. But, as with other thinkers from his vanished time, from Carl Schmitt to Henri de Lubac, there are signs his star is rising again (though to some it is a baleful star), so I am here to summarize a little of his thought.
For some time now, I have been claiming that what we are likely to get, and probably need, whether we like it or not, is a Man of Destiny. The original man called that was, of course, Napoleon Bonaparte. Neither my claim nor Napoleon is popular nowadays. We have gotten used to hearing that individual men don’t matter—that history is instead, take your pick, a matter of struggle for economic advantage, or of the opinions and actions of the masses, or of blind and random fate, or of group politics of one type or another. This book, Andrew Roberts’s generally positive take on Napoleon, shows the falsehood of those claims, and proves that what matters is men. Not men in general, but a tiny subset of men who make, and have always made, the world what it is, and what it will be, good and bad.
In the past year, several high-profile books have been published that purport to analyze the future of democracy. All are reactions, and not positive reactions, to the election of Donald Trump. All are written by people of the Left, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are either wrong or bad, although there is certainly a very strong correlation between being Left and being both wrong and bad. As part of my own analysis of a future Reaction, of which the death or massive alteration of so-called liberal democracy is a necessary part, I am slogging through these books (and also doing so in order that you may avoid doing so). How far I will get through the stack I am not sure, but I did get through this book, David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends.
Given that zombie survival manuals and similar how-to books are today all the rage, on sale at every Costco, Edward Luttwak’s Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook seems like a selection from the same genre. Namely, of somewhat jokey books that purport to tell you what to do in a strange, disastrous situation, while effectively acknowledging that if you do end up being chased by zombies, hurriedly turning to the index, finding the entry “When Being Pursued,” then scrambling to locate page 102, isn’t probably the best tactic for survival. But instead, this book is the real thing, I think—an actual practical handbook on how to overthrow the state. More precisely, how to overthrow a weak state, a banana republic, though I will give some thought to relevance in the modern American context.
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.
For some time now, I have been telling my children, none of whom have ever lived through any event that significantly harmed America, that sooner or later, history will return. The older ones roll their eyes; the younger ones have no idea what I mean. This book shows what I mean, through a fictionalized look at a 2020 nuclear attack by North Korea on South Korea, Japan, and the United States.
Of late, I have repeatedly claimed that the Left’s core goal is to achieve a utopia where all people have complete equality combined with wholly unfettered liberty. This has occasioned numerous queries (especially when one book review was linked on Reddit), asking, in effect, whether this is not internally contradictory. That is, if liberty is unlimited, is it not the case that inequality, rather than equality, is the inevitable result, so that it is false that the Left simultaneously pursues both goals?
How the Roman Republic ended is well known, even in these undereducated days, but all the attention focus goes to Julius Caesar. True, he was the pivot of the actual end of the Republic, but what came before and after was more important. What came after, during the long reign of Augustus, may not be as thrilling as story, but it dictated much of the later history of the West (and of the Roman East, now temporarily in thralldom). This book covers the other side of the transition, what came before—a period that nowadays is nearly forgotten, but is perhaps more critically important in what it can teach us today.
This is an excellent book, doubly excellent in that the writer, George Hawley, has written a book both even-handed and superbly accurate in detail about a difficult and controversial topic. I am personally deeply familiar with nearly all the facts covered in this book, and Hawley has not fallen into any significant error. Moreover, his analysis is generally excellent, so as a package, this book is a valuable contribution to understanding what I call the Great Fragmentation—the splintering, and reforming, of what until recently was a relatively monolithic instantiation of mainstream American conservatism. Finally, this book implicitly poses a fascinating question—should the Right adopt a new principle, in imitation of the Left, that there are no enemies on the right?
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.