If you know anything about Oliver Cromwell—and few do nowadays— you probably have an opinion about the man. Some vilify him; “A curse upon you, Oliver Cromwell, you who raped our Motherland,” the Irish rock band The Pogues sang. Others praise him as an enemy of arbitrary rule and a proto-republican. Ronald Hutton’s new biography of Cromwell’s early life and his climb to prominence makes no final judgment on the man, but it does offer a nuanced view of this complex historical figure. From Hutton’s excellent book we get not just history but the realization, in this desiccated age, that men such as Cromwell always emerge during great turmoil, rising as if from sown dragon’s teeth.
Without specific intention, I seem to have turned into a Roger Crowley fanboy, as shown by that I have now read every one of his books. Crowley is a British maritime historian, all of whose books are tied to the Mediterranean in the pre-modern portion of the second millennium, many centering around the interaction of Christianity and Islam. Conquerors is somewhat of a departure—still a maritime history, even more so than most of his books, but focused not on the Mediterranean, instead on the nearly unbelievable accomplishments of the Portuguese in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans between 1490 and 1520. Crowley makes the colorful, dramatic, and heroic deeds of the Portuguese leap off the page.
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.
As with Nicholas II, the last ruling Romanov, how we view Charles I is largely set by how his days ended. And as with Nicholas, we have been further conditioned by generations of propaganda pumped out by the winners and their ideological allies, claiming that it was Charles’s own bad philosophy, coupled with incompetence, rather than mostly bad luck and choices only wrong in retrospect, that led to his death. Leanda de Lisle’s The White King rejects the fake news and offers an even-handed view.
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 Niccolò 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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.