The Wisdom of the World: The Human Experience of the Universe in Western Thought.
By Rémi Brague. Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan.
University of Chicago Press. 228 pp. $35.
Rémi Brague, a French philosopher and philologist, has composed a fascinating history of Western thought’s interaction with the universe. Brague traces various views of the cosmos through major schools of philosophical thought and religious insight––Judaic, Christian, and Islamic––and also examines the impact of modern science on human self-perception. Central to the dominant philosophy that emerged in each era is man’s perception of his place in relation to the whole, whether looking up at the sky and seeing himself subject to outside forces or looking within himself for guidance, which Brague identifies as the advent of Abrahamic faith. Biblical religion effectively freed man from inanimate forces of nature but at the same time allowed for a metaphysical appreciation of the grandeur of his Creator. The high point of this confluence and reciprocity between outer and inner wisdom is reflected in the writings of the Church Fathers and St. Thomas Aquinas among Christians, and the commentaries of Maimonides among the Jews. In the modern period, the use of telescopes revealed a lack of completeness and chaos in the cosmos, while the microscope uncovered a violent world of nature that was far from good or virtuous. These Enlightenment discoveries inspired the amoral philosophy of Hobbes and finally the nihilism of Nietzsche, as humanity experienced a loss of a cosmic anchor. For philosophers, theologians, and historians––and, indeed, all those interested in the most far-reaching and profound issues of human life and meaning––Brague’s book is highly recommended.
Fr. Michael P. Orsi
An American Conversion: One Man’s Discovery of Beauty and Truth in Times of Crisis.
By Deal Hudson.
Crossroad. 192 pp. $22.95.
Hudson, publisher of Crisis magazine, tells a story that beautifully reflects the subtitle, but not the title. As a Southern Baptist, and minister of the same, the author chafed under the divorce of piety from aesthetics and the life of the mind. Bit by bit, with a hesitance interspersed by leaps of grace he does not presume to explain, he came to embrace another way of being Christian. Thomas Aquinas, George Herbert, Jacques Maritain, Louis Bouyer, and other masters were decisive in his being wooed by the Catholicism to which he finally succumbed. Elegantly written and a pleasure to read, this is the tale of an American who was converted and is, as he knows, still on the way of being converted. But one might argue that, in his preoccupation with beauty and truth, Hudson’s experience is in sharp contrast to what, in our confused religious culture of feel-good spiritualities, would be a typical “American” conversion.
Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait.
By Midge Decter.
HarperCollins. 220 pp. $24.95.
Do not expect a disinterested biography. Midge Decter loves and admires the man. This is a friend who wants others to know her friend as she does. Donald Rumsfeld is a native midwesterner (as is Decter), a Princetonian, an extraordinarily successful businessman; he was a Washington mover and shaker long before his current stint as Secretary of Defense. Although he has many detractors, he has also become a celebrity, with all the ambiguities attending that status. Decter explores with rare sensitivity what the Rumsfeld phenomenon might mean not only for the military and U.S. foreign policy but for our culture. She suggests that the response to him may indicate a rejuvenation of old-fashioned virtues such as courage, hard work, self-confidence, devotion to family, and, by no means least, what it means for a man to be manly. On the last point, Decter returns to questions of gender relations, as they are vulgarly called, a subject to which she has made many valuable contributions over the years. Rumsfeld is as fascinating as a dinner conversation sparked by the questions, “Tell me, what is he really like, and will he really make a difference?”
The Splendor of Faith: The Theological Vision of Pope John Paul II.
By Avery Cardinal Dulles.
Herder & Herder. 276 pp. $29.95.
A revised and significantly expanded edition of an indispensable guide to the thought of John Paul II. It seems likely that the major teaching initiatives of this pontificate are now complete, and Dulles provides, in relatively short compass, a comprehensive view of the whole. Dulles writes: “Guided by his philosophical studies and his experience of the Second Vatican Council, John Paul II has forged a Christocentric humanism and a dynamic personalism capable of encountering and respectfully challenging all opposing ideologies and spiritual movements. The Catholic Church and, I submit, the world have been greatly blessed by the intellectual leadership of this brilliant, energetic, and prayerful successor of Peter.” The task now is to digest and apply his many contributions.
Lessons of the Masters.
By George Steiner.
Harvard University Press. 196 pp. $19.95.
Steiner, who, with justice, has no doubt that he is a master teacher, herewith bestows his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, delivered in 2001-02. Few can match Steiner’s panache in the display of erudition and self-confidence (“I have students on five continents”) that is evident on almost every page. For instance: “Compare the first version of Karl Barth’s commentary on Letter to the Romans. Spengler may hover in the margin (Heidegger lectures on Spengler in April 1920). But such possible kinship falls short of the facts. The ‘enormity’ of Heidegger’s Sprachschöpfung, of his ‘language creation,’ enormity in originality and dimension as well, arguably, as in monstrosity, has only one precedent (of which Heidegger was acutely conscious): that of Martin Luther. One day, perhaps, we may come to understand what tectonic shifts of consciousness, what crises in the meaning of meaning made possible, necessitated at roughly the same period, Sein und Zeit, Finnegans Wake, and exercises in Gertrude Stein.” The connecting of improbable dots in world literature and philosophy is great fun, even if the argument of the book is somewhat thin, namely, that there is a strong erotic (and frequently homoerotic) dynamic in the teacher-student relationship, and teachers have a great, indeed sacred, responsibility for the successor generation. In the Acknowledgments we are told, “Throughout, the companionship in teaching and in study of my wife, Dr. Zara Steiner, has been exemplary.” It appears the master has given her an A+. In these lectures, George Steiner, who frequently joins insight to erudition, mainly settles for erudition.
The American Way: Family and Community in the Shaping of the American Identity.
By Allan Carlson.
ISI. 250 pp. $15 paper.
Increasingly being mainstreamed is the importance of marriage and family as it is discovered that neither women nor anyone else can “have it all.” Decisions must be made, and in this intriguing history Carlson demonstrates that the perduringly American decision, distinguishing America from the “Old Europe,” is in favor of what he calls the child-rich family. The American Way provides a solid historical foundation for understanding today’s controversies over what it means to be “pro-family.”
Footbridge Towards the Other.
By John McNerney.
Continuum. 176 pp. $29.95 paper.
The chaplain of University College, Dublin, provides a fresh reading of John Paul II’s philosophy and poetry, making the argument that he has succeeded in synthesizing Thomism and phenomenology in a strikingly new way. Of particular interest to students of philosophy and the thought of Karol Wojtyla.
In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage.
By John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr.
Encounter. 316 pp. $25.95.
The authors, who have been in the lead of researching the archives of the late Soviet Union, here turn their attention to American academics who still today engage in “revisionist” whitewashing of Stalinism in the hope of creating a myth of a noble “lost cause” that was done in by anti-Communists. Suggestive parallels are drawn between these anti-anti-Communists and Holocaust deniers.
C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church.
By Joseph Pearce.
Ignatius. 175 pp. $14.95.
Pearce, who has written extensively on twentieth-century converts to Catholicism, makes a plausible argument that Lewis would have been among them if he could have seen what would happen to the Anglicanism to which he adhered. Protestant fans of Lewis might be inspired to offer a rebuttal.