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Category: Renaissance History

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: The Middle Ages
(Johannes Fried)

It is universally accepted today that the Dark Ages are a myth, roughly as believable as the Australian bunyip.  In fact, medieval Europe was far more dynamic and far more intelligent than it was once portrayed.  Certainly, post-Roman Europe underwent material decline, and it temporarily lost the high culture, and high thought, of Rome.  But soon enough it began to rebound and expand, both geographically and mentally.  Johannes Fried’s main theme in this book, which covers A.D. 500—1500, is the rebirth of “mental acuity and of methodically controlled thinking” in the West, and the creation thereby of a new thing, from which the modern world is made.

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Book Review: Discourses on Livy
(Niccolò Machiavelli)

Niccolò Machiavelli is known today for two things: the adjective “Machiavellian,” and the book from which that adjective is derived, The Prince, which provides advice for monarchs who accede to power.  But Machiavelli wrote more than one book, and his second-most-famous book is this one, Discourses on Livy.  In it, he provides advice for the founding, structuring, governing, and maintenance of republics, along with advice to individuals holding power, and a good bit of practical military advice.  All this he extracts primarily from the extant writings of the historian Livy (64 B.C.– A.D. 12) on early Roman history, although he also brings in much other matter, including his own personal experiences and then-current events (Machiavelli wrote Discourses about 1517).  Thus, this book is part history, part mirror of princes, and part advice to those holding power in a republic on how not to get killed.

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Book Review: Agents of Empire
(Noel Malcolm)

When I think about Albania, which is not often, I usually think about Communist dictator Enver Hoxha and the hundreds of thousands of reinforced concrete pillboxes he scattered around Albania, preparing for the imminent assault of the imperialists.  Other than that, if I’m in a historical mood, I think about Skanderbeg, the Sixteenth Century freedom fighter against the conquering Ottomans.  If I’m thinking about the modern era, maybe I think about Mother Teresa, or on a less exalted level, Jim Belushi.  I don’t, or didn’t, think about Venice, or Lepanto, or Jesuits, or any of the very interesting, and even exciting, places, people, and happenings Noel Malcolm covers.  This book, however, has changed my perspective.

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Book Review: Sir Walter Raleigh
(Raleigh Trevelyan)

This book not only illuminates Sir Walter Raleigh’s life, but also illuminates his times in a way that brings real benefit to the reader. The author, Raleigh Trevelyan (who died in 2014), does an excellent job of making Raleigh’s story compelling, maintaining focus on his protagonist while bringing in enough of the historical and political background to put Walter Raleigh in the context of his times. (Although if you don’t like poetry, you may not like frequent quotations of Raleigh’s poetry—but those also illuminate the points at hand, and so are well worth paying attention to.)

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