John Buridan: Portrait of a Fourteenth-Century Arts Master.
By Jack Zupko.
University of Notre Dame Press. 550 pp. $40 paper.
Jack Zupko of Emory University is from the Cornell school of medieval philosophy. These scholars see it as their mission to explain to today’s analytic philosophers why they should find in the thought of the Middle Ages a rich and interesting source for their own intellectual projects. In John Buridan: Portrait of a Fourteenth-Century Arts Master, the many virtues of this approach are manifest. This book is at once an accessible introduction to nominalist philosophy and an intellectual biography of one of the most important figures in the history of Scholasticism. Despite being a Nominalist during the time when William of Ockham’s person and writings were so controversial, the diplomatic Buridan (c. 1300-c. 1361) was twice appointed rector at the University of Paris, which was then the great center of medieval intellectual life. Buridan was unusual in that he was a diocesan priest at a time when most academics were either Dominicans or Franciscans, and in that he remained in the Arts faculty as a philosopher when most intellectuals of his caliber saw philosophy as a stage on the way to a doctorate in theology. Zupko emphasizes that Buridan’s decision to remain in the Arts faculty kept him from becoming embroiled in the heated theological disputes of the day, which probably explains why he was able to rewrite all the philosophy textbooks to reflect his Nominalist philosophy and his interests in physics and natural philosophy. In Zupko’s telling, Buridan was an institutional genius who had a strong sense of the boundaries of his discipline. When someone objected to his answers to thorny metaphysical questions because of their implications for theology, Buridan refused to concern himself with the problem, declaring that theological questions were for the theology faculty and not for the ostensibly lower faculties. Zupko claims, somewhat provocatively, that this insistence on the division of labor between philosophy and theology provides the best angle from which to view Buridan’s famous dispute with the proto-Cartesian thinker Nicholas of Autrecourt. According to Zupko, Buridan’s major complaint was not so much with Nicholas’ skeptical conclusions as with his temerity in trying to interpret Aristotle’s philosophical works as a theologian. By regarding the differences between philosophy and theology as a matter not of method but of institutional structure, Buridan helped make philosophy a secular discipline completely independent from theology and its guidance. Many have made wild claims about the nominalist roots of modernity, but Zupko’s simple suggestion may prove to be not only sober but substantially correct.
—Daniel P. Moloney
A Terry Teachout Reader.
By Terry Teachout.
Yale University Press. 448 pp. $38.
This generous collection of Teachout’s writing on books, film, music, television, theater, dance, and more is only a small sample of his work as a “critic-for-hire” since the mid-1980s. During this period, he says, “America crossed a great cultural and technological divide,” and he hopes this selection “may have some value as a chronicle, a road map of how we got from there to here, and what we lost—and gained—in the process.” Technologically, we’ve gained digital tools with which we can store, transmit, and select from a vast array of music, movies, and visual arts. But we’ve lost the wide sharing of any single experience of art: as we select just what we want, we diminish our chance of being exposed to what we don’t already know. We’ve been confirmed in solipsistic habits by “niche marketing” and “narrowcasting”; and popular culture has been “proletarianized” and “coarsened,” as witness reality TV and gangsta rap. Culturally, we’ve had “a loss of nerve,” adopting a postmodernism that “disbelieve[s] in truth and beauty, claiming instead that nothing is good, true, or beautiful in and of itself.” In the higher reaches of our culture this has produced more theory than art, and in the more demotic branches it has led to “the sniggering, fearful Irony Lite that was the hallmark of American culture in the ’90s.” But culturally there has been gain as well. Teachout is witnessing a renewed “quest for beauty” as “a growing number of post-postmodern artists use that word without encasing it in the protective quotation marks of irony.” He instances the plays of David Ives, the films of Whit Stillman and John Sayles, new operas, “New Tonalist” composers, and the dances of Mark Morris. Teachout hopes we can somehow rediscover the artistic faith that he recalls from the “middlebrow culture” of his youth—the “acknowledgment of an ascending hierarchy of values, a ladder whose rungs could be climbed by anyone willing to make the effort.” Teachout is in no doubt about the proven ability of American artists to ennoble popular culture while popularizing serious culture, and he writes beautifully about many exemplars in many fields, “those artists who spoke in the crisply empirical, immediately accessible tone of voice now acknowledged by the whole world as all-American.”
—J. A. Gray
The Children of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.
By F. E. Peters, with a foreword by John L. Esposito.
Princeton University Press. 312 pp. $24.95.
Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages.
By Richard E. Rubenstein.
Harcourt. 384 pp. $15 paper.
The usual way of expressing the volatile mix that is Western Civilization is to speak of the tension between Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome (representing, respectively, Hellenic reason, monotheistic faith, and imperial drive coupled with legal uniformity). But that leaves out Islam, which is clearly intruding on the West in ever more obvious ways. Perhaps the better way to think of this volatility would be not in geographical terms of capital cities but—as these two books suggest when read in tandem with each other—as a genealogical problem: we are the children of both Abraham and Aristotle. Neither book wishes to give lessons for how to deal with the contemporary “clash of civilizations,” except perhaps to stress that this clash is not so much between as within civilizations. Not that such an insight will go far in helping resolve these essentially internal tensions. Peters’ book (a revision of his first book on this theme, based on twenty-five years of published work) makes especially clear how in all three monotheistic religions early moves, strategies, and interpretations proved utterly determinative for all later developments. Given the debt that all three traditions owe to Aristotle, it might seem that the Stagirite’s views on natural law as the foundation for morality would point the way to greater comity, if not outright amity; but Rubenstein’s history of that debt does not leave much room for hope either. For example, he recounts the highly ironic request of certain rabbis in the Middle Ages that the Inquisition burn Moses Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed because of its unholy mixture of faith and reason. And while Aristotle eventually received Catholic blessing because of the precedent set by Thomas Aquinas, Arab Aristotelians were largely secular professionals (physicians mostly) who had to rely on worldly patronage from caliphs and provincial governors. Once such patronage disappeared (imams in the House of Islam being much more powerful, needless to say, than were rabbis in the Christian West), Aristotle soon faded from the mental horizon of Arab civilization. Nor did ecclesiastical support for the Dominican Aristotelians end up doing Aristotle much good in the wake of Luther, Galileo, and Newton. The modest revival of interest in medieval philosophy in the past forty years might augur a change in fortunes for reasoned discussion of how to understand God’s role in all three religions, but one finishes these two lucid books far more aware of lost opportunities than of newfound hope.
—Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
Casanova in Bolzano.
By Sandor Marai.
Knopf. 304 pp. $22.
This short novel by a Hungarian who died in exile in the U.S. in 1989 was written in the 1930s and, along with his Embers which was published here in 2001, is hailed as a major literary discovery. The author says the only connection between his hero and the famous lecher is the name. Marai’s burned-out Casanova has escaped from a Venetian prison and, after many years, meets up with the Duke of Parma for whose beautiful wife’s favors he had once contended. They talk, sometimes interestingly, for many pages about love and life and death and growing old. Some have claimed to detect similarities with Robert Musil’s masterful Man Without Qualities. That may puzzle admirers of Musil.
The Meaning of Tradition.
By Yves Congar, O.P.
Ignatius. 175 pp. $14.95 paper.
Congar, who died at age ninety-one in 1995, was, according to Avery Cardinal Dulles’ foreword to this book, “perhaps the greatest master of the theology of tradition who has ever lived.” Congar’s understanding of tradition as a complex process in which the tacit is made explicit is justly compared with John Henry Newman’s reflections on the development of doctrine, and had an enormous influence on the Second Vatican Council. The present book is an abridgement of Congar’s massive two-volume work on tradition, and is highly recommended for both personal study and classroom use.
Bless This House: Prayers for Families and Children.
By Gregory Wolfe and Suzanne M. Wolfe.
Jossey-Bass. 240 pp. $19.95.
“The central thesis of this book is that parents need to do more than simply give their kids prayers to say. Rather, parents themselves should learn to pray by praying with and for their children.” The husband and wife who wrote this little book are fine literary artists and the parents of four children. Incorporating their years of experience and their consultations with experts on spirituality, they have created a substantial little guidebook to the “earthy spirituality of family life” to help parents meet their responsibility for nurturing the souls of their children—in which process the parents will find their own souls nurtured in turn. The excellent introductory essay starts at square one, with a parent’s common question, “How can I teach my kids to pray if I don’t know how to pray myself?” Taking into account the stages of childhood development, the many different aspects and kinds of prayer, the special needs of interdenominational and interfaith families, and much more, the Wolfes offer deep reflection and practical advice. The bulk of the book is a rich collection of prayers from many sources on which families can draw for different seasons, occasions, celebrations, and crises. This book should become a treasured possession in many households.
Rediscovering America’s Sacred Ground: Public Religion and Pursuit of the Good in a Pluralistic America.
By Barbara A. McGraw.
SUNY Press. 241 pp. $16.95 paper.
Writing for a general audience, the author surveys some of the disputes over whether the public square should be naked, sacred, or civil. The “sacred ground” of the title is variously described but usually seems to mean the common good. McGraw, who teaches at Saint Mary’s College of California, skirts some of the harder questions joining moral discernment and public policy. Abortion, for instance, is not to be found in the index. Hers is an exclusively Lockean and contractual reading of the American founding, devoid of the covenantal intonations of providential purpose. Her insistently advanced definition of religion is radically Protestant and individualistic, effectively identifying religion with individual conscience understood as self-direction. Her understanding of the “separation of church and state” entails also a separation of conscience from church. She wants to steer a middle course between “left” and “right,” but one wonders if her repeated affirmation that “the voice of the people is the voice of God” might be equally objectionable to both. As a form of democratic idolatry, it ought to be.
More Catholic Than the Pope: An Inside Look at Extreme Traditionalism.
By Patrick Madrid & Pete Vere.
Our Sunday Visitor. 186 pp. $12.95 paper.
Started in France, the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) now has an estimated one million members worldwide. SSPX, founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, presents itself as being in communion with the Catholic Church and apparently most of its members believe that is the case. This book is aimed at disillusioning them. The evidence presented is conclusive, but whether it will convince is another matter. Both authors identify themselves as traditionalists and Mr. Madrid provides the “inside look” as a former Lefebvrist.