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 …
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.
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.
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.
The study of history is dead. That may seem an odd assertion, given that I am reviewing a very good work of history, Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Punic Wars. But books like this are read by a tiny audience—hard to say how big, but I would be shocked if more than ten thousand people had read this book, and it is by a known author. As far as I can tell, nearly nobody in public life, whether in politics, the media, popular entertainment, big business, or even most of the academic world, knows anything about actual history.
This review will combine something very old with something very new. The very old, of course, is the title character, the Emperor Augustus, and his times. The very new is a continuation of my thoughts on reaction as a modern political movement. You will see how these things fit together, and in fact are much the same thing, for today, more than ever, everything old is new again. And I will begin to distinguish “conservatives” from “reactionaries,” as I recently promised I would.
This outstanding book, by the anarchist-tending academic James C. Scott, might be (but isn’t) subtitled “Barbarians Are Happier, Fatter and Better Looking.” The author does not believe the myth of the noble savage—but he thinks the savage is, on average, a lot better off than the peasant. Scott’s project is to remold our view of the early days of civilization, erasing the sharp lines usually drawn to separate the first states from the social groups which preceded them, and dismissing the judgment that more organized is always better.
Most of us, or so I like to think in order to feel better about myself, steer away from actually reading St. Augustine. We know that he is an intellectual giant and one of the handful of core, key thinkers of Christianity, but everything he has to say seem so dense, and wasn’t he the mean proto-Calvinist who thought unbaptized infants go straight to Hell? Not to mention that, after all, it was all so long ago and far away. Like a lot of people, I own several works by Augustine, but mostly to show my erudition, not for, you know, actual reading. But after completing Robin Lane Fox’s Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, I think I’m inspired, or at least impelled, to sit down, concentrate, and read some of Augustine’s works. Assuming the feeling doesn’t pass, I think that’s exactly what I’ll do.
We tend to think of Christianity’s global spread as somehow predestined. A little thought, of course, shows this to be far from the truth. In fact, many cultures have strongly resisted the message of the Gospel—most dramatically with violence and the creation of martyrs, but sometimes more successfully with intellectual arguments against the truth of Christianity. For example, Martin Scorsese’s recent film adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s Silence shows the torture and martyrdom of Christians—but it also shows vigorous and successful Japanese efforts to combat Christianity intellectually. In the Preface to this 2003 second edition of The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, the author, Robert Louis Wilken, ruefully relates that the Japanese translator of the first (1984) edition ascribed the book’s success in Japan to that it “has given Japanese intellectuals new arguments against Christianity.” This book, therefore, proves three things—that there are internally coherent intellectual arguments against Christianity, that those have been made for thousands of years, and that Christians equally have thousands of years of sound intellectual answers to those arguments.
Barry Strauss is a master of the “you are there” style of popular historical writing. His books are accessible and gripping narratives about discrete historical episodes, including Spartacus, the Trojan War, and the death of Caesar. I’m a fan, of course. I’ve read most of his books, and I’m working on finishing the rest. “The Battle of Salamis” was the first popular book written by Strauss, and it well deserves the praise often heaped on it.