The modern mind is very susceptible to viewing the past as wholly different, and worse, from the present. We have all absorbed narratives of supposed progress that rely on painting the past in the grimmest light possible. But the daily lives of most people were not that different, and not less happy, at any given point in the human past, than they are now. Every person in every age faces challenges and burdens; some change as the ages pass, but challenges and burdens remain. This is not to deny that the material world has, for many, improved greatly, but as is well known, happiness is only very tangentially related to material benefits, and medieval man was, most likely, usually more happy and content than modern man, bound as he was in a sacramental world of meaning.
This long but smoothly written book, by the very recently deceased John Julius Norwich, scion of English nobility, covers more than a thousand years of Venetian history. Nowadays Venice is mostly known as an overloaded tourist destination, or as a victim of environmental degradation, rather than as the world power it was for most of its history. Norwich, who loved the city and talks in detail not only about its past but also its architecture, often tying the two together, ably restores the place of Venice in history. And in so doing, he manages to both be interesting and to show us viable alternatives to the dead end into which “liberal democracy” has led us.
Like Diogenes searching for an honest man, I spend my days searching for a useful political program. Necessarily rejecting all Left philosophies as anti-human and anti-reality, I go searching through the thickets on the Right, where of late various new approaches have arisen, to accompany various old ones that are getting fresh attention. They do not get much older than the one espoused in this book, Catholic integralism—versions of the idea, in essence, that church and state should be cooperative joint actors in pursuit of a flourishing society, rather than separate spheres of action. There is a lot to be said for this approach, but as always, its modern proponents spend too much time talking about the past, and too little on how elements of this approach could be used to build the future. Before Church and State is a very detailed examination of the relationship of church and state in the kingdom of Saint Louis IX (r. 1226–1270). The focus is not so much on the king, although he appears often in the vehicle …
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.
As I and my family continue our inevitable pivot toward Orthodoxy, I have been reading more works on, you guessed it, Orthodoxy. This book, by the English theologian Timothy Ware, who as a bishop uses the baptismal name Kallistos, is a classic introduction to Orthodoxy. It was first published in 1963 but has more recently been revised, so it is fully up to date on history—and doctrine has not changed in Orthodoxy since 1963, or 963, for that matter. I’ve actually owned the book for several years, but have only now read it, having been told by several people that it is very much worth reading. And they were right—it is an excellent book.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This book is ferociously erudite, but tinged with obsession. True, nearly all modern academic and popular mention of Muslim Spain endorses an easily disproved falsehood—that Muslim Spain was a golden land of tolerance, offering unique scientific and cultural advancement. So I suppose that the opposite falsehood, that Muslim Spain was a nasty land of unbroken intolerance where nothing was accomplished, in a sense merely balances the scales. But a reader of The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise still feels like he’s once again only getting part of the picture, and getting berated into the bargain, rather than getting what most readers really want, which is an analysis that is as objective as possible.