Books in Little
The Loeb series of Latin and Greek texts, bound in their distinctive red and green, respectively, has been a standby for readers of the classics for generations. While other series are more focused on academic needs, the Loeb books presumed an audience comfortable enough with the classics so as not to be frightened off by the original languages, while the English translations on the facing pages could help those whose linguistic skills needed polishing. They represent an age of genteel learning and a general acceptance of a common culture derived from Greece and Rome.
In celebration of their 500th volume, Harvard University Press, which publishes the series, has collected thirty-three excerpts into a handy reader that extends across the reach of classical literature. The selections range from Homer to St. Jerome, Plato to Propertius. All of the major genres are covered, from epic poetry to private letters, and feature some of the more memorable classic texts. The Virgil selection, for example, is an excerpt from Book IV of the Aeneid, in which Aeneas recounts to Dido the fall of Troy and his escape, while the excerpt from Thucydides features Nicias’ speech to his fellow Athenians arguing against the invasion of Sicily. The Greek geographer and travel writer Pausanias provides us with an account of the Olympic games, and St. Jerome sings a paean to rural life. Each of the short selections—none runs more than four or five pages—provides an introduction of the author’s style, and together remind us of the variety of the literature of the classical world.
While for devoted classicists or academics, this reader is no substitute for the full texts, in original or translation, it is a welcome addition to the series.
In a career spanning over half a century, Alasdair MacIntyre has earned a prominent place among the most influential philosophers in recent times. Since publishing After Virtue in 1981, MacIntyre has contributed greatly to a reinstatement of Thomistic Aristotelian philosophy in a world that had long discarded such a perspective. Now MacIntyre has released these two volumes of essays spanning three decades that reflect his mature and formidable philosophical convictions as well as his conception of what it means to be a philosopher.
An account of “enquiry” as dramatic historical narrative provides the shape for the first essays in Volume 1 and serves as a defining means for MacIntyre’s own philosophical method. Taking up the general theme of modernity, he argues that the Enlightenment has failed to produce an independent rational standard to which one can appeal to determine the truth of philosophical enquiry. Contrary to the Enlightenment approach, philosophical questioning must begin with a narrative enquiry into the critical texts of a tradition’s particular history, through which each individual tradition must grow or fail according to its own internal practices.
MacIntyre’s approach to tradition-based enquiry led him to the philosophical conviction of a Thomistic Aristotelian, which he admits in the Preface to Volume 2 was “something that had initially surprised me.” It is from this “Aristotelian view, as extended and amended by Aquinas,” that most of the essays in these volumes have been written. Of particular interest are “The ends of life, the ends of philosophical writing,” which argues that philosophers must align their work with their pursuit of the ultimate ends of life, and “Social structures and their threats to moral agency,” which examines the influence of environment on moral decisions while critiquing the compartmentalization of modern social life.
These collections of essays meet the objective that MacIntrye sets as the goal of philosophical enquiry: they send the reader back into the world, invigorated and eager to revisit the questions regarding the ends of life.
Xenophon’s Anabasis, the world’s first account of a military expedition by an army general, has long been standard reading for intermediate students of ancient Greek. A masterful historian, Xenophon recounts the three thousand mile round trip journey he and his fellow Greek mercenaries made into the heart of the Persian Empire and their epic return home.
Classicist Robin Waterfield, seeking to rescue this tremendous saga from mundane grammatical drill, has made the Anabasis the “backbone” of this book in which he examines the wider context of Xenophon’s expedition and of the Greek world at the end of the fifth century. While summarizing Xenophon’s basic narrative, Waterfield elaborates on themes and ideas that Xenophon took for granted, such as the nature of hoplite warfare, the logistics of travel and military convoy, and the contemporary political situation. Additionally, he describes the wider historical context of Xenophon’s world, including Greek intellectual achievements of the fifth century, the conflict between Athens and Sparta, and Athenian democracy. Most valuably, Waterfield assesses Xenophon as an historian and a philosopher, praising him as “an outstanding writer and a great storyteller” who “always had moral and educational agendas.”
As the subtitle of the book implies, the book also analyzes the dramatic change in Greek life at the end of the fifth century, the “Golden Age.” Waterfield sees Xenophon as a “transitional figure” from the optimism, achievement, and moral certainty of the fifth century to a new era of instability and uncertainty due to the collapse of Athens in the Peloponnesian War and to the undermining of the intellectual foundations of Greek life and morality by the sophists. As a result Xenophon writes nostalgically for this lost era, projecting “the troubles of his present world back on to the expedition.” Such analysis makes Waterfield’s book worthy of attention by both Xenephon students and by philhellenists of all stripes.
After decades of influential teaching and prolific writing, Monsignor Robert Sokolowski, philosophy professor at the Catholic University of America, has released this collection of essays that illuminates the core of his philosophical anthropology: the use of phenomenology to examine both faith and reason in the created world.
Sokolowski groups the essays by four themes: “Faith and Reason”; “The Eucharist and the Holy Trinity”; “The Human Person”; and “Faith and Practical Reasoning.” While covering a wide range of topics, Sokolowski consistently builds upon the foundation of the Christian understanding of the world as created and contingent upon God’s generosity, His free choice to bring the world into existence. This understanding “enables these other [Christian] teachings to be believed” because it “tells us about the nature of the giver of this gift.” Moreover, the fact that God is distinct from creation makes possible the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity. Sokolowski’s phenomenological theology, which he calls a “theology of disclosure,” offers a new lens for contemplating the age old mysteries of the Redemption and the Eucharist.
For Sokolowski, faith and reason are neither antagonistic nor mutually exclusive; rather they are partners that exist in a healthy tension: faith “involves and elevates reason” while “philosophical reflection can help us appreciate the distinctiveness of Christian faith and make that faith and its object more clearly present to us.” He applies the notion of faith enhancing reason by examining the religious dimension of a few seemingly secular topics: the nature of the human person and his role in political life, the practice of medicine, and the nature of professions. Through flowing prose and the lucid ideas, Sokolowski invites his readers to an invigorating encounter with the central questions surrounding the mysteries of God and the human person.
It is no secret that the understanding of free speech has become deeply muddled over the last half-century. Largely, this is the fault of the Supreme Court, which assisted a cultural revolution that transformed any “expression” into speech, and asserted that since “the personal is the political,” every act of speech should be protected by the First Amendment lest freedom be destroyed. The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that the Court has upheld restrictions on political speech by affirming the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill, and religious speech by, among other things, limiting the ability of religious institutions to practice their faith. At the same time, precedent allows other types of speech—most particularly pornographic and violent words and images—to proceed almost without restriction. This has the Constitution almost exactly backward.
In this provocative book Patrick Garry, a law professor at the University of South Dakota School of Law, proposes a different understanding of the free speech protections. He advocates on behalf of listeners—why should we be subject to images and programming we determine to be offensive, without any democratic way of ordering our common life? In a series of incisive chapters, Garry rejects most of the standard defenses of a limitless First Amendment liberty for non-political speech, and argues that the standard liberal defense of offensive speech simply are inapplicable to today’s media-saturated environment. The contours of what speech is protected needs to reflect the actual decisions of the people subject to it, what Garry calls “a private right to censor.”
This right to censor would focus, for Garry, on speech particularly harmful to children, and would not include political speech, as that is the core type of speech protected by the First Amendment. Using some recent cases to support this right, Garry develops a sophisticated analysis that courts could use when deciding whether a listener’s rights to not be exposed to certain types of offensive speech trumps the speaker’s right to broadcast offensive messages.
The book would have benefited by a more nuanced view of federalism. The disaster of First Amendment jurisprudence has arisen in part because a national elite can impose its view on all subordinate communities, and true diversity is suppressed. While not a perfect solution, Garry’s argument injects a new perspective into the free speech debate.
The need for this book can hardly be overestimated. The West is in disarray, unsure of its future and the relevance of its past, at time when it faces new threats; scholars such as James Kurth have spoken openly of Europe’s “identity problem.” In this spiritedly written book, deftly translated by Kenneth Casler and introduced by Michael Novak, Philippe Nemo, a French scholar whose rejection of the radicals of 1968 informs this study, traces the central elements of Western civilization. Drawing on the work of Harold Berman and others, Nemo identifies in a series of concise chapters five historical turning points that define the West: the Greek invention of the city; the Roman invention of the law; the ethical and eschatological revolution of the Bible; the eleventhand twelfth-century papal reform movements; and the eighteenth-century revolutions that ushered in modern liberal democracy. Nemo is no stranger to controversy, and his assessment of the importance of these turning points pulls no punches. His contention that the results of these Western moments, such as the primacy of law and the rights of contract, cannot easily be transported across cultures will surely shock the intellectual classes, for whom culture is negligible.
In recounting these five episodes of Western history, Nemo is at pains to distinguish his history of the West from nationalist or biological interpretations, which fail to understand the true achievement of the Western tradition. In words that could have been taken from Christopher Dawson, he writes that the West is “a culture successively embodied in several communities.” It is the centrality of the institutions and traditions that make the West, and they are not (as Nemo shows) necessarily limited to Europe and America. In a concluding chapter, Nemo argues for a Union of the West, one founded on a true understanding of Western culture and not the fashionable ideologies of the European Union. Only by understanding one’s own culture can a true dialogue of civilizations begin, and What Is the West is a good primer on our own.
Posted: September 9, 2007
What We’re Reading (Summer 2012)