All posts filed under: European History

On Revolution (Hannah Arendt)

This is a book that rewards patience.  The problem is, I am not a patient man, nor do I think that the reward here would be commensurate with the effort.  Thus, I spent enough time, which was quite a bit, to grasp maybe half of this book.  I think the rest escaped me.  That’s partially my fault—but it’s also the author’s fault, since an elliptical writing style combined with frequent use of untranslated French phrases (even the educated don’t generally learn French anymore), along with scatterings of Greek, does not conduce to good communication.  And aside from foreign languages, Arendt’s thought sometimes is so obscure as to be ethereal, an odd trait in a book that (in this edition) features a clenched fist on the cover, which is really not truth in advertising.

Archeofuturism: European Visions of the Post-Catastrophic Age (Guillaume Faye)

I sometimes think of my project to pass Reaction through the refiner’s fire as beginning with the raw material of a simple stout tree, which has grown straight but has many branches.  My task is to examine and prune those branches, and to plane down the tree to its core, creating a smooth and solid piece of wood, to which can be fitted a forged head—a lance of destiny, we can call it.  This book, Guillaume Faye’s Archeofuturism, is one of those branches, and today we will lop it off, though perhaps some of its wood can be used to fuel the forging furnace.  That said, this book is mostly insane.  But not completely.  And, if I am being honest, it prefigures, in part, my own preoccupation with a future that combines the politics of Reaction with the technology of tomorrow.

Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages (Etienne Gilson)

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.

Napoleon: A Life (Andrew Roberts)

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.

The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made (Philip Bobbitt)

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.

From Plato To NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents (David Gress)

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.

The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality (Kyriacos C. Markides)

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.

Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of Terror in the French Revolution (R. R. Palmer)

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.

The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Brad S. Gregory)

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.

The Power of the Powerless (Václav Havel)

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.