The Thriving Society: On the Social Conditions of Human Flourishing
edited by james r. stoner jr. and harold james
the witherspoon institute, 230 pages, $25
hat conditions are required for a modern society to thrive? This collection of essays in response to that question begins with Robert George on the foundations of a decent and dynamic society. George argues that healthy societies rest on three pillars: respect for the human person, the family, and a fair and effective system of law and government. A decent society need not be dynamic, but social dynamism requires two more pillars: institutions of research and education, and economic institutions that generate, distribute, and preserve wealth. Social dynamism need not conflict with or destroy social decency. But social dynamism requires the pillars of social decency; economic growth will not long survive if families are weakened in the process.
The philosophers, economists, lawyers, and political scientists who follow George do not agree in all respects, but they share a common agreement about the importance of the three pillars. In a sense, they provide a blueprint for what a flourishing society would look like—and the various ways in which our own is not built to those specifications. They also diagnose the roots of those problems. Roger Scruton argues that personhood is “a way of becoming, not just a way of being,” a process and not an “all-or-nothing attribute.” We become more human by cultivating virtues in a social context. Contra Rousseau, man is not born free, but is made free. Michael O. Emerson catalogues the ways in which religious institutions provide essential support to social flourishing.
The most successful essays tell us what concrete steps to take as we seek to follow the blueprints. Jesús Fernández-Villaverde provides a helpful layman’s introduction to the problems of our health-care system and some potential solutions. And Steven Justice offers excellent suggestions for how students, faculty, and donors can work toward reforming universities—the best essay of its kind I have read in a long time. To give a small example: Many bemoan the extent to which higher education has become specialized, and Justice agrees that specialization is a problem without an easy solution. However, he also recognizes that “Serious inquiry seeks precision; precision entails . . . the clear distinction of details; and this proliferation of details changes the scale upon which ordinary inquiry can be conducted. . . . That is not how research has happened to develop; that is how it must develop if it is to be successful. Specialization is not a defect.”
The need for construction plans has become especially acute as the tension between decency and dynamism increases. George is correct that that tension need not exist, but it does and it grows by the day. How can our market economy and its current system of values not destroy respect for life and family? Perhaps such questions will be explored in a sequel.
—Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Boston College.
When I Was a Photographer
by félix nadar
translated by eduardo cadava and liana theodoratou
mit, 336 pages, $24.95
élix Nadar was not a man easily pinned down. Though he’s on the books as one of the most important photographers of the nineteenth century—both for photographing the leading French writers of his era and for making advancements in camera technology—Nadar’s life spanned a number of diverse occupations, from caricaturist to balloonist. Fittingly for a man with so many interests, When I Was a Photographer, a collection of Nadar’s journals, lacks any narrative or generic coherence, though they never cease to be anything less than fascinating. At once a memoir and a history book, the journals give an unusually specific account of a photographer’s life that should be of value to the casual photographer and the serious historian alike.
With a penchant for detailing life’s minutiae, Nadar springs from one topic to the next. A thorough genealogy of the fathers and forefathers of photography is succeeded by Nadar’s quaint foray into beekeeping. The scientific exactitude of Nadar’s photographic processes above and below ground leads into a droll and unscientific rumination on the differing psychologies of male and female clients at the photo studio.
It’s perhaps a bit much to ask for thematic coherence of a man’s diary, but Eduardo Cadava, co-translating the text into its first English rendering with Liana Theodoratou, posits a unifying theory in his introduction: The key to understanding Nadar’s writing lies not so much in the “Photographer” of the title as in the “When.” Even though photography is at the core of nearly every chapter of the text, the yarns Nadar spins out from that common center embody a photographic approach to history, rather than the other way around.
Nadar seems to want to commit his life—experiences, observations, memories, and all—to an exhaustive record, in much the same way that a photograph aims to capture a fleeting moment of time in comprehensive detail. At times, Nadar’s excessive prose frustrates, reaching a comic climax in his digression on “dynamography, chronography, desnigraphy, hypography, calorigraphy—all the graphies,” apropos of absolutely nothing in an entry on “The New President of the French Society of Photography.” But by and large, his exhaustive lexical approach is endearing. More important to Nadar than making grand advancements in the field of photography (though he certainly did so, with his groundbreaking experiments in aerial and subterranean image making) is preserving the transient memory of otherwise trivial details, for it is the sum of such small things that constitutes a life.
—Tim Markatos is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative.
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