Dante . By R. W. B. Lewis. Viking. 205 pp. $19.95

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Dante: A Life in Works . By Robert Hollander. Yale University Press.
222 pp. $25.


The work of Dante Alighieri is a compendium of medieval history, culture, politics,
and religion. The problem in understanding him is not so much a lack of information
about the poet and his times, as how to come to grips with the mass of subjects
that are relevant to the Divine Comedy . Even the good modern editions
with notes raise almost as many questions as they answer. Yale’s R. W. B. Lewis
has written a rich and accessible introduction to Dante in his recent contribution
to the Penguin Lives series. Lewis has also produced a comprehensive history,
The City of Florence . He draws a great deal on that earlier work to situate
Dante in one of the most important and vibrant of medieval cities. Florence
was second only to Paris in size during the poet’s lifetime and energized the
early Italian Renaissance. Indeed, Pope Boniface VIII, says Lewis, seeing so
many Florence-born ambassadors in Rome, called the Tuscan city “the fifth element
of the cosmos.” Lewis knows that the Divine Comedy and other Dantean
works operate on several levels of meaning, but since he is writing a biography,
he sticks close to what they say about Dante’s life. Along the way, he offers
many stunning surprises and never fails to enlighten. Dante: A Life in Works ,
by Princeton’s Robert Hollander nicely complements Lewis’ book. As his title
indicates, he approaches Dante through his literary achievement. Hollander is
one of the greatest living Dante scholars, and his recent translation (with
his wife) of the Inferno demonstrated again his mastery of the vast scholarship
on Dante. He examines the various disputed questions in a chronological commentary
on the works, but he never lets the controversies obscure the literary power
of the poet and his daring claims for the way human love turned him toward redemption:
“There are, as a wag has put it, only two classes of readers that are deeply
offended by Dante’s claims for divine inspiration, believers and nonbelievers.”
No publisher, Hollander reminds us, would have thought this visit to the other
world by an exiled poet-politician was likely to be a successful literary enterprise.
That Dante has succeeded for over three-quarters of a millennium in making readers
passionately interested in his story is only one measure of his success.


Robert Royal


After Progress: American Social Reform and European
Socialism in the Twentieth Century
. By Norman Birnbaum. Oxford University
Press. 432 pp. $35

.


The attempt”and failure”to bring about a genuinely socialist society remains
the most momentous political-historical phenomenon of our times. It is thus
appropriate that scholars continue to study and reflect on the question of socialism.
What is troubling is that so many appear blind to the implications of that momentous
phenomenon. Norman Birnbaum has done considerable research into socialist ideas
and movements in the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia. But
he seems to have learned little. His book is suffused with bitterness over the
incapacity of these ideas and movements to transform political and social life
in a fundamental way. Page after page, he bemoans a multitude of unrealized
possibilities and alternatives. The result is a combination of careful scholarship
with the barely contained utopian impulses of a former true believer. Birnbaum’s
unhappiness arises from what he sees as a lack of meaning and sense of community
in contemporary Western societies. These are legitimate complaints and preoccupations”ones
shared by many figures on different points of the ideological spectrum. Yet
few of them share Birnbaum’s far-left conviction that some sweeping”and unspecified”social
transformation could deliver us from these ills by overthrowing the capitalist
order. While he should be applauded for recognizing that the Bolshevik Revolution,
which grew out of similar discontents, amounted to an “enormous tragedy,” his
insistence on fanning the flames of political radicalism signals an unwillingness
to reflect on whether revolutionary ends themselves, rather than some context-dependent
contingency, might be the ultimate cause of totalitarian brutality. If Birnbaum’s
book teaches us anything at all, it is that, although the opportunity to give
effect to revolutionary hopes may have vanished for the time being, these hopes
themselves are unlikely to disappear any time soon.


Paul Hollander


The Faces of Janus: Marxism and Fascism in the Twentieth
Century
. By A. James Gregor. Yale University Press. 256 pp. $35

.


A. James Gregor sets out to demonstrate fascism’s similarity to communism”a
proposition that will no doubt lead to discomfort among those who insisted throughout
the Cold War that the latter system was far more benign than the former. He
builds a convincing case, no doubt partially because of his decision to focus
on Italian fascism”as well as the third world dictatorships that, following
World War II, came to resemble it”rather than Nazi Germany. Gregor does not
dispute that, at first, the Soviet system differed markedly from its Fascist
counterparts, at least in theory and aim. Yet the two systems “share[d] a common
origin in response to . . . common problems” with the process of modernization
and industrialization. So similar were these origins and the assumptions that
the two systems made about how to solve them that they eventually converged
toward the goal of creating a “new society, and even a new man” as the only
adequate response. While an elaboration of the relationship between fascism
and Nazism would have enriched Gregor’s argument, his study is nevertheless
enlightening and revealing.


PH


Maimonides’ Empire of Light: Popular Enlightenment in
an Age of Belief
. By Ralph Lerner. University of Chicago Press. 221 pp.
$35

.


Of all those who were personally students of Leo Strauss, none of them has
remained closer to Jewish teaching than Ralph Lerner. One of Strauss’ greatest
achievements was to persuade a number of assimilated or nearly assimilated young
Jews that they could, with intellectual integrity, take up again the Jewish
tradition. No one seems to have been so effectively persuaded as Lerner. In
this book, he presents his own extended introduction to those works of Maimonides
(who for both Strauss and Lerner is the philosophical Jew par excellence) that
attempt to address more than just a philosophical elite. Following his introductions
of these short works, Lerner presents excellent English translations of them
by some of the best Jewish medievalists. Maimonides’ main concern was to dispel
popular superstitions about Judaism, both because they falsely portray it and
because they provide ammunition for enemies of the Jews who argue that Jewish
revelation is intellectually and morally inferior to their own revelations.
The spiritual and even physical continuity of the Jews and Judaism requires
that the masses of Jews understand, as best they can, that the Torah is truly
the law given by God to “a wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4:6).
In other words, Jews should embrace philosophic understanding of their faith
and the world in order not to succumb to views that might appear to be truer
and more noble. ( Mutatis mutandis , Pope John Paul II argues the same
about Catholicism in his encyclical Fides et Ratio .) What do we derive
from Lerner’s perceptive portrayal of Maimonides’ contribution to the spiritual
health of his people? In an age when Jewish survival is argued on grounds of
nostalgia or spitefulness at its would-be exterminators, Maimonides the popular
educator provides a model for Jewish teachers, especially philosophical ones,
to keep persuading the people that it is not so much that the Torah is good
for the Jews, but that it is good for the Jews to affirm the Torah’s truth and
attempt to demonstrate it as much as possible. This book is highly recommended.


David Novak


One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism .
By Rodney Stark. Princeton University Press. 256 pp. $24

.95

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Sociologist Rodney Stark is, as they say, controversial. In book after book,
he sets out to overturn received wisdoms, and with his earlier The Rise of
Christianity
he ruffled the feathers of the historical establishment. The
pres­ ent book, which is also eminently worth reading, continues that pattern
as Stark gives new meaning to “interdisciplinary” in his imaginative forays
into sociology, history, comparative religion, and theology to demonstrate the
ways in which monotheism shaped the Western world, and thereby the world. He
deals chiefly, of course, with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but includes
an extended excursus on why Hinduism may also be viewed as monotheistic. He
effectively debunks the notion popularized in the nineteenth century”chiefly
by Jewish scholars, which is regretted by contemporary Jewish scholars”that
Islam was ever so much more tolerant of religious minorities than Christianity,
and offers interesting speculations on why anti-Semitism (an anachronistic term)
broke out when and where it did over the centuries. Stark persists in his long
attachment to the economist school of the sociology of religion, “explaining”
religion in terms of exchange theory, rational choice, cost-benefit analysis,
etc. As in past books, that persistence becomes an annoyance that gets in the
way of his argument at least as often as it serves as a useful explanatory device.
Like other critical theories”gender, race, class conflict, sexual repression”economism
results in reductionism and implausible squeezings of facts to fit the theory,
although in this book Stark seems more aware of that danger and underscores
that his explanatory system should not be taken as a device for discrediting
the ways in which believers understand their beliefs and actions. One True
God
is bracing, rollicking, startling, belligerent, informative, and guaranteed
to provoke second and third thoughts about what readers thought they always
knew about religion and the history of the world.


The Hauerwas Reader . Edited by John Berkman and
Michael Cart­ wright. Duke University Press. 729 pp. $27.95

paper .


Critics will say that this is all the Stanley Hauerwas you will ever need,
and quite a bit more. Admirers will view it as the first course of a magnificent
feast. The collection might have been titled The Essential Hauerwas ,
in two senses of that term: it captures the gist of the person and enterprise,
and understanding Hauerwas is necessary to understanding theological ethics
in our time. Hauerwas outrages and instructs, and is almost always worth the
bother.


Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People, and the Fate
of Catholicism
. By John Cornwell. Penguin. 296 pp. $24

.95

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The author of Hitler’s Pope explains how the Catholic Church has broken
faith with his understanding of what the Catholic Church should be. He is hopeful
that, if the next pope is a kind and loving man who agrees with him, the Church
might be able to survive the twenty-first century.


Love & Economics: Why The Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t
Work
. By Jennifer Roback Morse. Spence. 273 pp. $27.95

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Morse is an economist who was cured of libertarianism by becoming a mother.
The book is a magnificent defense of marriage and family, but it is also more
than that. It offers a readable and penetrating analysis of the ways in which
rationality and calculated self-interest in human relations has stifled the
expression of self-giving love, without which nothing works. She begins from
the simple observation that we all enter life as babies. We never outgrow being
dependent, but we can grow in our ability to give. Warmly recommended.


Characters in Search of Their Author . By Ralph
McInerny. University of Notre Dame Press. 138 pp. $25

.


The Gifford Lectures of 1999-2000 delivered by the extraordinary, and extraordinarily
prolific, philosopher of Notre Dame. McInerny joins learning, wit, and lucidity
in producing a reliable, and enjoyable, guide to reasoned faith and faithful
reason.


The Fall & Other Poems . By J. Bottum. St.
Augustine’s Press. 68 pp. $7 paper.


Some of the poems have appeared in these pages, more elsewhere. Bottum, back-of-the-book
editor at the Weekly Standard , is one of the most consistently rewarding
poets writing today. Faith, hope, and love keep breaking through the surrounding
dusk. Highly recommended.


Articles by Various

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