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.
Billed as a continuation, this book is really the chiral image of Michael Walsh’s earlier book, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. That book was an attempt, with limited success, to outline and discuss the poisonous Frankfurt School of political philosophy, Critical Theory, through the prism of art. This book, on the other hand, aims to discuss art, with Critical Theory as the subtext. It is a largely successful attempt to outline and discuss the unparalleled genius of Western art, in its historical context and with its historical implications, and thereby to “restore Western culture to its proper place.” That restoration is necessary for our culture to cauterize the venomous bite of the Frankfurt School, whose view of art as politics, and of Western culture as worthless and evil, must be rejected if the West is to regain its path.
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.
This book, by the always fascinating Niall Ferguson (though his main product for sale is always himself), analyzes capsule summaries of episodes from history, in order to negatively contrast spontaneous, networked action (the “square”) with hierarchical control (the “tower”). Two theses flow from this, one stated early on, the other only explicitly presented at the end. The first is that our networked age is not unique; in fact, it is the second such age, and lessons are to be gained from this, including that, from a historical perspective, networks are too often ignored in favor of focus on hierarchies. The second is that networks with actual power are mostly anarchistic poison.
In the middle part of the twentieth century, before The Walking Dead, the historiography of civilizational collapse was dominated by Arnold Toynbee’s multi-volume A Study of History, with his “challenge and response” dynamic. Before that, stretching back into the nineteenth century, other analyses analogized the lives of civilizations to the lives of humans, most notably in Oswald Spengler’s enormously influential The Decline of the West, published in 1918. And many other writers over many centuries have, in different ways, examined why civilizations fail, the classic early modern example being Edward Gibbon’s analysis of Rome. Joseph Tainter arrived in 1988, with this book, to offer an alternative—namely, total economic determinism filtered through a framework of his own devising. Not a very successful framework, to be sure, but at least one that provides some food for thought.
This book is a massive history of the English, written by an English expert on France, Robert Tombs. Somehow, against the odds, it manages to be sprightly, interesting, and, most of all, generally upbeat about the past, present, and future of England. Tombs rejects the idea of “Whig history,” not because English progress does not exist, but because the past was rarely as bad as we often think, making any progress less dramatic than it may appear. He offers rational, yet clear-eyed, hope for a bright future—one not destined to be good, but certainly with a better than even chance of being so. Thus, this book is a counterweight to recent narratives of English decline (such as 1999’s The Abolition of Britain, by Peter Hitchens), and a book that all pessimists should read.
This is a famous book. Together with Marshall Hodgson’s three-volume The Venture of Islam, it is the touchstone of modern long-form histories of the Islamic world. A History of Islamic Societies, as its title implies, covers both history and theology. Given that I like history, and that I have a particular interest in comparative theology (primarily as between Christianity and Islam, with forays into other religions, living and dead), you would think reading this book would be, for me, an ideal way to spend my time. But it nearly defeated me.
How We Got To Now is competent enough, but it feels threadbare. It feels like a narrative designed to punctuate a picture show that is missing its pictures. It probably feels that way because it is that way—it was written to accompany a PBS television series (which is flacked on the cover of the book), and, unfortunately, without the moving pictures, the book doesn’t stand on its own very well.
Last month, in December 2016, maybe as a Christmas gift to himself, Thomas Sowell announced that he was retiring. Technically, he announced that he was retiring from writing a syndicated column, but at age 86, it seems likely that he does not intend to write any new books, either. This is unfortunate, but his work is done. There can be little doubt that Sowell’s many works, taken together, by themselves would be adequate to educate someone raised by wolves on everything any person needs to know about economics, political economy, and much of history.
The East, what in a more direct and confident time we called the Orient, has always held a deep fascination for a certain subset of Westerners. This fascination frequently centers around a whole or partial perceived superiority of the East to the West. For example, not so long ago, there was a vogue for Westerners, from TE Lawrence to Wilfred Thesiger, to wander the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, where they found spiritual fulfillment, or at least something they thought they could not find in the West. Peter Frankopan, a Byzantine expert and the author of “The Silk Roads,” is a modern, stay-at-home version of those men. And while his book is interesting and not without merit, it is marred by his sharing with those earlier Westerners a credulous and unsupported belief in the superiority of the Orient.