by Theodore Dalrymple
New English Review Press, 218 pages, $19.95
In much learning there is weariness of flesh . . . or, in the case of Theodore Dalrymple, stoical wit. A former prison doctor and hospital psychiatrist in London, presently a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, his wide travel and reading provide the anecdotes that are the stuff of his most recent collection of essays, Anything Goes. Whether he is ruminating on the architecture of Ghent Cathedral, his brief Albanian imprisonment, or the intelligentsia’s bad faith, these previously published columns from the New English Review lead to an incisive and prescient interrogation of our postmodern ethos.
For his part, Dalrymple (pen name of Anthony Daniels) “doesn’t understand the modern world.” Appropriating one of his patient’s confessions as his own, he declares, “It’s doing my head in.” An author who both has “an abiding hatred for intellectual frivolity” and is skeptical about perfectly understanding human motivation, he offers his descriptions of society’s psychoses to “put your worries into perspective.”
With the exception of the introductory travel journal—a desultory mapping of post-European mores—each of the thirty-three pieces can be digested in about five minutes. Mostly as a result of this form, the book’s strength is not in its argumentation, but in writing that is clear, often very funny, never pretentious (although it is a bit precious at times), and insightful.
Writing years before the ongoing European debt drama (and writing about crime prevention, in fact), he admonishes, “A nation whose individuals choose vice rather than virtue as the guiding principle of their lives will not long remain free because it will need rescuing from the consequences of its own vices.” He elsewhere warns against “the ever-expanding concept of human rights” because of its self-generating subservience “to regulatory bureaucracies.” Throughout his collection, Dalrymple curses the “totalitarian mindset” that invests government with the divine prerogative to solve every problem.
Dalrymple is not a man of religious belief, and his essays arguably want for human sympathy. But his panoramic of unreason and irresponsibility is also a sustained meditation on the problem of evil, from white lies to genocide. Hence, the collection’s ultimate strength is that it points beyond itself in crying for help: If anything goes, we must pray that God comes.
—Bruno M. Shah, O.P., is parochial vicar of
St. Vincent Ferrer Church in New York City.
Catholic High Schools: Facing the New Realities
by James L. Heft
Oxford, 272 pages, $24.95
Encroaching secularism, enrollment issues, and budgetary constraints are just a few of the critical challenges facing Catholic high schools today. Fr. James Heft, founder of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California, argues that the root of the current crisis in Catholic schools is that they have lost the sense of “their distinctive religious and educational mission.” The future hinges above all on coherent vision and inspiring leadership. When they have these, “money follows vision.”
The first and most important dimension of Catholic education “is the joining of intellectual with moral and religious education.” Because of Catholicism’s deep religious and intellectual tradition, Catholic schools have a substantial advantage over public schools in the formation of morality and character, a fact supported with a number of sociological studies.
Heft offers suggestions to transform this advantage into enrollment and financial gains for Catholic schools, including ways to create schools with a vibrant sense of community and a positive moral and religious climate. Recognizing that the future success of Catholic schools depends on the laity, he devotes three chapters to the spirituality and educational philosophy of lay school leaders, and to the development of talented, faith-filled teachers who see their work as a vocation.
Clarity of mission and formation of lay leaders and faculty come together to produce the third ingredient for flourishing Catholic schools: a critique of modern culture. Heft’s detailed assessment of American religion, society, and adolescence today demonstrates how effectively Catholic education “meets students where ‘they are at,’ but never leaves them there.”
Although the challenges facing Catholic education show no signs of abetting, Heft’s book provides hope that “Catholic high schools that have understood their distinctive Catholic mission and who have found ways to foster lay leadership will not only survive, they will be the first choice of post-deferential parents as well.”
—David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches theology at the
Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, New York.
by George Kateb
Harvard, 256 pages, $22.95
George Kateb’s new book is infuriating. The culmination of his distinguished career as a political philosopher at Amherst and Princeton, it exudes erudition, insight, and wisdom on every page. But constrained by an unshakable secularist ideology, it also exudes superficiality, misunderstanding, and folly on every page.
Human Dignity is his response to fellow secular liberals who write of the “stupidity of dignity.” He insists that conceptually neither human rights nor political morality is enough; the concept of human dignity must be defended and deployed in order to account for the standing of every person as an equal subject of justice.
The argument has two parts: First, he defends the equal status of all persons, not as what he terms a moral claim but as “an existential claim” about reality that demands our recognition. Second, he defends humanity’s status as the highest being in existence—rising above and beyond the confines of nature, humans possess unique capacities.
And so Kateb is relentless in his criticisms of consequentialism and scientific reductionism. Regarding the former: “I do not see how the criterion can be the greatest possible amount of net pleasure in the world, irrespective of how the pleasure is secured. . . . Are utilitarian thinkers ready to accept atrocities—torture in the literal and extended senses—if they are the necessary preconditions for the production of the larger sum of pleasures?” And as to the latter: “It is a category mistake, indeed a serious blunder, to say that on any given occasion, a person’s motive, mediated as it is by mind, is unconsciously determined by evolutionary inheritance.”
But so, too, is Kateb relentless in his insistence that talk of God is smoke and mirrors, that “morality has to do solely or principally with human suffering”; that “in the virtue ethics position, dignity has to be earned or deserved.” How can such confusion be intermixed with his otherwise perspicacious discussions?
Kateb seems to want to promote a Christian conception of dignity (excluding, of course, what this would entail for sexual integrity), without what he sees as the baggage of theism. In his discussion of humanity’s distinctive capacity to transcend nature and causality, and the wonder it should prompt, he seems to be promoting a non-theistic spirituality. Regardless of whether he can successfully achieve either of these tasks, his rebuke to the reductionists and determinists and, above all, the “stupidity of dignity” crowd is well-delivered and praiseworthy.
—Ryan T. Anderson, a member of First Things' Advisory Council,
is editor ofPublic Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute.