Books in Little
Does the free state have pre-political moral foundations? This slim volume contains opposing answers to this question by Habermas, one of Germany’s leading philosophers, and Ratzinger, the future pope, at a Munich symposium a year before the latter’s election to the papacy. As Florian Schuller points out in the introduction, their respective essays bring the reader into “an intensive conversation that concentrates on the essential issues” of the roles of religion and morality in secular democracies, and whether these states require an antecedent standard to guarantee legitimacy and freedom.
Answering in the negative, Habermas argues that since democracies are built upon “the constitution that the associated citizens give themselves,” there exists “no ruling authority derived from something antecedent to the law.” Thus the laws and rights of the state “can be legitimated only in a self-referential manner, that is, on the basis of legal procedures born of democratic procedures.” By contrast, Ratzinger argues that the majority principle, and its ability to tyrannize and oppress, begs the question “whether there is something that is of its very nature inalienably law, something that is antecedent to every majority decision.” Without the presupposition that man’s “being bears within itself values and norms that must be discovered—but not invented,” laws governing experiences from the discovery of America to modern emphases on human rights “are incomprehensible.”
Although they disagree on first principles, the two thinkers reach similar conclusions on the reality of life within the secular state, including the need for faith and reason, and religion and the state, to complement one another while respecting the other’s sphere. Together the two essays make an excellent introduction to the core issues surrounding modern secular life and goverance.
Edward Gibbon called the story of Rome’s decline and fall “simple and obvious,” yet scholars continue to disagree over its ultimate causes. Goldworthy’s masterful narrative begins at the height of Roman power to confirm the observation of the Roman historian Cassius Dio: after 180 AD, Rome’s history “descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.”
Goldsworthy’s book furthers arguments of the last decade that called the period of Late Antiquity a true decline and fall of a once great empire, rather than a benign transformation into the Early Middle Ages, as was fashionable in the closing decades of the twentieth century. His unique contribution lies in his assessment of the fall’s ultimate cause: “the slow rotting” that reduced the eastern empire to “little more than a rump” and destroyed the empire in the west “began at the top” when, beginning in the third century, “Roman emperors lost a sense of their wider role and instead concentrated on survival” due to the constant threat of usurpation and civil war. According to Goldsworthy, this threat transformed the role of emperor and his surrounding imperial bureaucracy so much that he likens the Late Roman Empire to the body of a retired and unhealthy athlete: “it may well have been ‘murdered’ by barbarian invaders, but these struck at a body made vulnerable by prolonged decay.”
Throughout the book Goldsworthy challenges a number of prevailing theories, including the renewed strength of the empire in the fourth century, the potent influence of Christianity on the emperors and life in the empire, and the rising formidability of the fifth century barbarians. Careful not to say more than the evidence allows, Goldsworthy’s fluid prose and measured judgment tells a gripping story of how a great civilization succumbed to “internal enemies.”
“Only writers whose work is in continuity with the great tradition stretching back to the ages of faith, to Shakespeare and Dante and Chaucer, are in the true mainstream of our civilization.” So writes Ralph McInerny, the late man of letters, who himself has made a great contribution to the great tradition as a philosopher, teacher, writer, editor, publisher, Catholic, and family man. This absorbing and witty memoir, which is more thematic than chronological, combines the introspection of a seasoned philosopher with the skill of a crafty novelist to produce what McInerny called good writing: “a story that will engage and hold and satisfy the interest of the reader.”
Born in Minnesota in 1929, the seeds of McInerny’s accomplished career were planted at a young age. As a boy he received a printing set as a Christmas gift; this sparked a love for editing and publishing, which he did from his high school days onward. As a high school student he modeled himself on the writers of the school’s literary magazine, of which he became editor as a senior. Years later, when in need of money as his family grew, he turned to writing novels and mysteries. After a series of rejections that showed “I was almost ignorant of how a story is made,” he learned the craft so well that he produced dozens of fiction books, including the best seller The Priest. As a college student at St. Paul Seminary he became “hooked for life” on philosophy, which led him to graduate studies at Laval University in Quebec, and then a fifty year career at the University of Notre Dame, a place that he “loves, warts and all.” McInerny’s compelling recollections are the crown of a well spent life and career that “through it all the invisible hand of God has operated.”
Posted: November 14, 2010 in Books in Little.
What We’re Reading (Summer 2012)