Ross Douthat has a job that is, I would guess, either enviable or unpleasant, depending on the day—that of being the only regular conservative contributor to the New York Times. A frequent focus of Douthat’s is that most counter-cultural of doctrines, orthodox Roman Catholicism. If you want to suffer, you need only visit the comments section in the Times for any Douthat column, especially one on Catholicism. Exposing yourself to the firehose of bile and stupidity there will show you what Purgatory will be like, although perhaps Purgatory will be an improvement. Undaunted, Douthat now offers a full-length book on the changes being brought about by Pope Francis.
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.
As I so often complain, the quality of modern discourse is atrocious. Probably this is due to everyone being told for decades that his opinion always matters, along with a belief that democracy means all opinions are equally valid regardless of reasoning, capped off by modern avenues of communication that allow easy, free broadcasting of stupidity, when in the past dumb people had very limited ability to force the rest of us listen. Worthless discourse exists across the political spectrum, of course, although that the Left dominates popular media means the average person probably has to suffer more from being bathed in drivel from that side of the spectrum. A subset of this general problem is that religious discourse is of equally low level, though rather (in most cases) being vicious irrationality, it is vacuous irrationality. It is this vacuous irrationality, at its core the idea that God is “nice,” that Roman Catholic theologian Ulrich Lehner is here to dismantle, in this brief and accessible book.
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.
Wallace Stegner, writer about the American West, is famous mostly for his novel Angle of Repose. This book is not famous, but it is worth reading. Mormon Country is a travelogue centered on the areas settled by the Mormons—basically Utah, of course, but also parts of Colorado, Nevada, Wyoming, Arizona, and New Mexico. It is not a book about Mormons, though they appear prominently; it is about the country, as it was in the 1930s. Stegner did not write this book to make a point. There is no ideological overlay, and Stegner is neither pushing nor denigrating Mormonism. He was not Mormon, but he respects them and their culture. Mormon Country draws a picture of the area and its history, as of the time of writing, and offers intriguing tales (many of which have modern postscripts).
[This post duplicates my review of Captain Blood, without the book-specific parts. I am cross-posting it because it fits in two categories, Reviews and Analysis.] American history is full of rebellion—the War of Independence and the Civil War, of course, but also unsuccessful smaller-scale rebellions—Shay’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, John Brown’s assault on Harper’s Ferry, and the leftist rebellions of the 1970s. We can conclude that rebellion is relatively commonplace and that it arises from different causes. What I want to talk about is when it is intellectually and morally justified. We will examine theory and practice, Aquinas and Rogue One. I am sure that writing this will probably get me on some list, or rather some additional lists, and prevent my being appointed to any government position—at least, in the current dispensation. But since I doubt if the current dispensation will last, this is probably not the hobbling it seems.
Captain Blood, to the extent it is mentioned today, is remembered as a 1935 movie that made the career of Errol Flynn. The story was originally this novel, published in 1922. It is the story of an Irish physician who, in the late Seventeenth Century, settles in the southwest of England, in Somerset, after wandering the world for a decade. He is caught up in the Monmouth Rebellion, in which a bastard son of Charles II rebelled against James II and lost the 1685 Battle of Sedgmoor, the last battle fought on English soil. Captain Blood (his name is Peter Blood; the title is not a nickname, as one might think of a pirate novel), treats a man wounded in the battle. He is therefore dealt with as a traitor, even though he took no part in the rebellion itself, but his death sentence is commuted to being sold into slavery in Barbados.
I have read David Goldman for a long time, under his alter ego, Spengler, a columnist for the Asia Times. His columns are invariably excellent—pithy, insightful, and a pleasure to read. But the talent set required to be a columnist is very different than that required of a book author. Many columnists are unable to write a book that is other than either a set of compiled columns or a padded out column. The late Joseph Sobran, who wrote for National Review when it was more than a forum for third-rate neoconservatives angling for jobs under Republican politicians, was one such. David Goldman is another, and it shows in the many defects of this 2011 book, How Civilizations Die.
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.