Leonardo da Vinci
by walter isaacson
simon and schuster, 624 pages, $35
Walter Isaacson, best known for biographies of Steve Jobs and Einstein, is unsurprisingly most interested in Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific achievements. His chief concern in this volume is examining how Leonardo’s forays into anatomy, engineering, and optics influenced his masterpieces.
Unfortunately, he leans his narrative too heavily upon Enlightenment clichés. In Isaacson’s opinion, da Vinci attained greatness by avoiding the Church’s “authorized creed” of “dusty Scholasticism.” Instead, he pioneered “an empirical approach for understanding nature” that anticipated the work of Copernicus, Bacon, and Galileo. Isaacson’s account of the artist’s life and times provides a thorough roundup of facts and a generous sprinkling of quotes from Vasari’s Lives, but his commentary resorts to tired motifs. In Isaacson’s hands, da Vinci’s medieval influences are downplayed, and the Mona Lisa mastermind is almost entirely reduced to precursor of Bacon.
Still, this volume does offer a wealth of meticulous details and follows riveting rabbit trails to discuss such topics as Michelangelo’s piety and expert strategies for identifying authentic da Vinci paintings. For the curious lay reader who can overlook Isaacson’s editorializing (and his repeated insistence that Leonardo’s penchant for sodomy went hand in hand with his creativity), this work is a serviceable introduction to the major events and artistic developments in the life of the genius behind the Last Supper.
—Ramona Tausz is a junior fellow at First Things.
Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being
by david walsh
notre dame, 312 pages, $39
Rarely do modern Catholic theology and academic political theory inform each other. But they do in David Walsh’s Politics of the Person. Here Martin Heidegger appears alongside twentieth-century Catholic personalists like Jacques Maritain, while Jesus is mentioned in the same paragraph as Emmanuel Levinas. In his previous, more historical studies, Walsh explored overlooked sources, often outside the liberal canon, that made the value of personal experience central to modern political thought.
Here, Walsh adopts a more reflective mode. He argues that our liberal political vocabulary—equality, autonomy, and rights—tends to reduce unique persons to the abilities and entitlements of the individual. But “the person” changes everything. Walsh prefers a Christian idiom of personhood, one drawn from Kierkegaard as much as from Maritain and Pope John Paul II. Persons are dignified because God’s personhood dwells within them, and persons are free because they participate in the gift of divine freedom.
The personal transforms our understanding of God, art, history, and politics—Walsh devotes a chapter to each—but also of issues like abortion, artificial intelligence, and cloning. In today’s discussions about liberalism and its future, Politics of the Person stands to enrich our appreciation of democracy and human rights.
—Robert Wyllie is a graduate student in political theory at the University of Notre Dame.
The Landmark Julius Caesar:
The Complete Works
edited by kurt a. raaflaub
pantheon, 896 pages, $50
The Landmark Ancient Histories series is the brainchild of retired businessman and independent scholar Robert B. Strassler. Beginning with The Landmark Thucydides (1996), Strassler has produced authoritative new editions of the major Greek historians that include copious maps for easy reference, a continuous chronology on every page, marginal chapter summaries, photographs of relevant archaeological materials, abundant footnotes (always illuminating, never bloated), and a comprehensive appendix featuring learned but accessible articles by prominent scholars. It is a gargantuan achievement, strange and almost incomprehensible in this amnesiac age, and a moving reminder of the debt we owe to antiquity.
The Landmark Julius Caesar, a collaboration between Strassler and classicist Kurt Raaflaub, marks the series’s first foray into Latin, and does not disappoint. Few if any ancient authors are more needful and deserving of the Landmark treatment than Julius Caesar. His De Bello Gallico and De Bello Civili are dense military narratives written for a militaristic society, moving swiftly—and, for the modern reader, sometimes inexplicably—from action to action in a minimalist prose style with little by way of context or literary flourish. This has the potential to bore, as generations of English schoolboys knew. But in Strassler and Raaflaub’s hands, Caesar comes to life in all his spiritedness and virile power. We are able to inhabit the mindset of republican Rome, and perhaps begin to grasp why Caesar represented both its greatest triumph and its deadliest enemy.
—Connor Grubaugh is assistant editor of First Things.
The Jesuit Missions of Paraguay and a Cultural History of Utopia (1568–1789)
by girolamo imbruglia
translated by mark weyr
brill, 332 pages, $168
The foreign missions of the Society of Jesus have always held a special place in the European imagination. The first great Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, became a celebrity in his own lifetime thanks to his success converting thousands in India and his daring (if unsuccessful) efforts in Japan. Among other Jesuit missions, the reducciones of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Paraguay have also achieved lasting notoriety. Convincing nomadic tribes to embrace Christianity and to adopt a settled agricultural life, the Jesuits spread the gospel and European culture while offering indigenous converts a measure of protection from the more rapacious aspects of Spanish colonialism.
In The Jesuit Missions of Paraguay and a Cultural History of Utopia, Girolamo Imbruglia shows how the reducciones became a potent symbol in European debates about the ideal state, particularly in eighteenth-century France. As Imbruglia notes, the utopian vision of the Paraguayan missions was created by the Jesuits themselves: In widely circulated accounts, Jesuit authors described how once-“savage” Indios “became different men” through their conversion and joined a “perfect society” resembling the early Church. Skeptical of such reports, a succession of authors critical of the Society of Jesus—from Jansenists such as Blaise Pascal to Enlightenment thinkers like Denis Diderot and Voltaire—accused the Jesuits of harshly exploiting the Indios. Less polemically but still in the Enlightenment tradition, Montesquieu used the example of the reducciones in his Spirit of the Laws to work through questions about the common good and the role of the state in procuring human happiness.
The religious aspects of the Jesuit missions were inimical to Enlightenment philosophes, but the story of the reducciones nevertheless helped thinkers such as Montesquieu to articulate new ideals as, in Imbruglia’s words, “the creation of a utopian society became the mission of European civilisation.” The Jesuit Missions of Paraguay and a Cultural History of Utopia ostensibly ends with the French Revolution, but it raises questions that still resonate today as Europe ponders its future. Accordingly, this book offers readers interested in the history of political theory and in the roots of the modern European project much to think about.
—Fr. Joseph Koczera is a Jesuit priest who lives and studies in Paris.
Humanist Architecture for a Modernist World
by dale allen gyure
yale, 296 pages, $65
On the cover of Dale Gyure’s attempted rehabilitation of the life and work of the architect Minoru Yamasaki is an evocative photo of the World Trade Center. Perhaps Yamasaki’s most significant and well-known work, it is an appropriate symbol for his career as a whole: idealistic, bold, doomed. After World War II, he bought into the promise of a grand new social order shaped by modernist principles. New materials and a new way of life demanded new architectural forms. But Yamasaki was not content with cold modernism, preaching instead the humanist ideals of surprise, serenity, and delight.
Squarely in the middle ground between functionalists and postmodernists, Yamasaki exerted an influence that is underappreciated. His works were not always successful. The Pruitt-Igoe housing project, an attempt to bring a human element to an inhumane form, was torn down twenty years after it was built and is considered an unmitigated catastrophe. Despite some clear failures, his architectural exploration of the influence of aesthetics on the human spirit took him to places most modernists wouldn’t go. Whether Yamasaki’s humanist modernism was successful (or even possible) remains an open question, but Gyure helpfully puts the modernist movement in a broader context.
The design of the book itself is impressive, and its aesthetic fits beautifully with Yamasaki’s theory of serenity, surprise, and delight. With margins medieval in size, the book cries out for extensive note-taking. Whether the reader is interested in architectural theory or the biography of a little-known but significant figure in twentieth-century architecture, this book delivers.
—Nathaniel Gotcher writes from West New York, New Jersey.
A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Volume 1
by peter adamson
oxford, 386 pages, $29.95
Philosophy is typically taught to undergraduates in survey courses which jump from Aristotle to Descartes (with perhaps a brief detour for Marcus Aurelius or Thomas Aquinas), leaving a gap of almost two thousand years. For graduate students, the situation is little better, as they tend to be forced into narrow niche disciplines (philosophy of mind, philosophy of action).
In his excellent podcast on the history of philosophy, Peter Adamson seeks to remedy the situation by shedding light on these blind spots. The podcast, rather boldly called “A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps,” has given rise to the eponymously named series of books (now reaching volume 3, Philosophy in the Islamic World). The project promises to give under-examined periods and figures much-needed exposure. Even well-known figures such as Descartes, Aquinas, Plato, and Aristotle are to be presented in context, and as part of a working tradition.
Volume 1, Classical Philosophy, covers ancient Greek philosophy up to just after the death of Aristotle. It highlights some non-philosophical figures who influenced philosophers (sometimes by providing something to react against), such as Homer, Hesiod, the Greek medical tradition, and the Sophists. The book is clear, with an easy, engaging style that nonetheless avoids excessive oversimplifications, the bane of large-scale “popular” surveys. While Adamson’s treatment of Aristotle, particularly Aristotle’s Physics, is somewhat superficial, the real strength of this book is its treatment of more neglected figures and works, including some of the less widely read elements of the Platonic corpus.
—J. H. Feil is an attorney in Washington, D.C.