Inside the Mind of Thomas More:
The Witness of His Writings
by louis w. karlin and david r. oakley
scepter, 130 pages, $11.95
This little volume by Louis Karlin and David Oakley uses Thomas More’s own writings to demonstrate the nature of his witness to the truth. The authors gently correct the popular claim that More was principally devoted to the inviolability of conscience, while also refuting the idea that he was merely a religious fanatic driven by anti-heretical bloodlust. Above all, they show the reader how More balanced his great devotion to the state with the belief that the state itself, and the conscience of every individual, must serve truth and the common good first.
The book tackles three phases of More’s life: the events leading to his resignation, the period preceding his imprisonment, and the imprisonment itself—each characterized by More’s dedication to the bonum commune. Though he observes in his writings (notably his History of Richard III) that kings can lead the state utterly astray, his life exemplified virtuous engagement with politics rather than abandonment. As the king’s chancellor, he minimized evil to the body politic as best he could—the “indirect approach” found in Utopia—until directly confronting evil was necessary. After his resignation, he refused to take the oath endorsing Henry’s schism, but also withheld his reasons for refusing. He strove both to uphold the order of the kingdom and to discharge his moral duty, while making a crucial affirmation: Law derives its authority from morality, and morality from truth. Ultimately, More was martyred for this assertion.
Karlin and Oakley include excerpts from lesser-read works—such as More’s Coronation Ode and his spiritual treatises—to give a fuller picture of a man wholly dedicated to the service of God and the polity. Brief but thorough, this book is an ideal introduction to More for the nonspecialist.
—Thomas Sundaram is a tribunal judge in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
Rebel in the Ranks:
Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World
by brad s. gregory
harperone, 304 pages, $27.99
Essentially a popularization of The Unintended Reformation, Brad Gregory’s latest deserves much of the same praise—and criticism—that greeted his earlier volume. The condensed narrative, however, prevents some of the nuance for which its predecessor was lauded, while also throwing into sharper relief the flaws of the original argument. That well-known argument claims the Reformation’s doctrinal conflicts precipitated its century-long physical conflicts. This problem of violence was solved by the promotion of a tolerance that separated religion from politics, reducing the former to an individual choice. But this solution created its own problem, namely, the secularization of the modern world with all its attendant ills.
The story is gracefully and often graciously told, but the decisive novelty of both its “problem” and its “solution” remains questionable. Challenges to Roman doctrine and authority, followed by violent reaction, were hardly new with Luther; they were part and parcel of Christendom’s history from day one. The crucial variable in the sixteenth century was simply that coercive attempts to suppress them finally failed. Similarly, it’s unclear that toleration associated with notions of religion as a private, voluntary phenomenon first emerged in the post-Reformation West. Consider, for example, the deal offered Christendom’s Jews. They would be allowed, and of course much encouraged, to make individual, voluntary choices for Christianity. If they decided not to, their beliefs and practices would be tolerated—so long as they remained private, neither informing nor influencing public life.
To be sure, secular modernity follows the Reformation chronologically, but logically—with its all-encompassing orthodoxy, its qualified toleration of select privatized faiths, and its conscious efforts to suppress others—it seems still to be following the path hewn by pre-Reformation Christendom.
—Korey D. Maas is an associate professor of history at Hillsdale College.
A Beginner’s Guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy
by jason m. baxter
baker academic, 224 pages, $17.99
No matter how scrupulously researched, many historical introductions to La Divina Commedia and the medieval Florentine world of Dante Alighieri obscure rather than enlighten, tending to drown the poetry in an erudite wave of Guelphs and Ghibellines. Jason Baxter’s readable introduction is different: Although it does provide necessary historical context for the Comedy, its primary aim is to help Dante novices embark on a close reading of the poem itself.
Baxter holds that reading is not merely an informational or even an intellectual act, but one that reshapes the reader’s very morals. Done well, it ought to effect the same interior transformation in the reader that the hero undergoes in his journey. As Dante travels from the dark wood to the Empyrean, the reader should move from apathy to love. Baxter aims not only to gloss historical obscurities and explain the Comedy’s structure, but to teach the art of deep reading as participation in the poetic journey. His close readings aim to rewrite his audience’s humanity, just as omo is reinscribed on Forese Donati’s face through his purgatorial sufferings.
Nevertheless, Baxter’s approach does have its limitations. His emphasis on making the text accessible to modern readers leads him periodically to drop into a needlessly informal tone, incongruent with the book as a whole. He offers no concise map of the poem’s structure. And unfortunately, Baxter neglects many beloved passages for the sake of concision—such as Dante’s immersion in the River Lethe in the Purgatorio. These, however, are minor points. For the general reader who hopes to set out in his barque to Paradiso, yet is unsure of the way, this is an excellent place from which to launch.
—Madison Michieli writes from Lander, Wyoming.
The Aristocrat Who Became France’s Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando
by paul kix
harper, 304 pages, $27.99
In France, explains Paul Kix, deputy editor at ESPN The Magazine, “The La Rochefoucauld name is almost like the Kennedy name” in America. That is, “if the Kennedys had been around for 1,000 years.”
A lineage can be a burden. As François de La Rochefoucauld, author of the famous Maxims, once wrote, “Great names degrade instead of elevating those who know not how to sustain them.” In this volume, Kix recounts the adventures of one of François’s descendants, one who managed to live up to his famous last name: French Resistance hero Robert de La Rochefoucauld—the James Bond of France.
Robert, only sixteen when the Nazis invaded, felt Marshal Pétain’s surrender was “monstrous,” but all around him he saw adults making peace with the German occupation. It would have been easy to do the same, but Robert could not evade the judgment of the portraits in his family’s chateau. Looking down upon him were loyal servants of France and martyrs of the Church. Amid the dishonor of the early 1940s, they seemed to ask, “Et tu, Robert?”
Robert would answer history’s call. Working first for a crack British special operations unit and then for the Free French, he sabotaged the Nazi war effort, disguised himself as a nun, endured horrendous torture, escaped from German captivity three separate times—including once on the way to his execution by firing squad—and kept coming back for more.
“Man’s merit, like the crops, has its season,” reads the 291st entry in François’s Maxims. I wonder if that’s true about the young Robert. If he had been part of an elite raised to despise its forebears as criminal, benighted, or both, might he have missed his calling? One thing I do know: Without history, we have precious little left to live up to.
—Elliot Kaufman is the Joseph Rago Memorial Fellow at the Wall Street Journal.
Kids These Days:
Human Capital and the Making of Millennials
by malcolm harris
little, brown and company, 272 pages, $25
Most books about millennials are neither for millennials nor written by millennials. They are by and for managers, marketers, consultants, and frustrated parents.
But in Kids These Days, Malcolm Harris (born in 1988) changes that. Instead of vilifying his fellow millennials for their slothfulness, he traces the material conditions that have shaped his generation, outlining the economic causes that created an age group seemingly more depressed, anxious, and narcissistic than any that went before.
According to Harris, the narcissism may be warranted—because the stakes have never been higher. It’s become necessary not merely to be moderately successful, but to make it to the top. In an increasingly globalized world, “it’s harder to compete for a good job, the bad jobs you can hope to fall back on are worse than they used to be, and both good and bad jobs are less secure.”
When we think of “young adults,” we tend to think of lazy, sullen people who aren’t living up to the world’s easy opportunities. But when we talk about children and their future, Harris points out, we often paint a picture of an unstable, dangerous world. It is with this second view of our society that we should attempt to understand millennials, instead of endlessly complaining about avocado toast.
“The growth of growth,” Harris avers, “requires a different kind of person, one whose abilities, skills, emotions, and even sleep schedule are in sync with their role in the economy.” Our economy, in other words, has demanded that young adults become egoists in order to survive.
If Harris is right that economic structures have demanded this new narcissism, then perhaps the only way out is a different, more stable economic structure—an economics as if people mattered. Might not more stability allow us to build the kinds of lasting communities that offer space in which to give ourselves to others?
While replete with anecdotes, Harris’s book doesn’t entirely succeed at letting average millennials speak for themselves. Though Harris pulls stories from studies, books, and news articles, his account lacks original reporting or interviews to back up his broader claims. The great navel-gazing millennial book is yet to be written.
—Andrew Summitt is marketing manager at First Things.