The Republic of Virtue:
How We Tried to Ban Corruption, Failed, and What We Can Do About It
by f. h. buckley
encounter, 296 pages, $25.99
Something is rotten in the states of America. F. H. Buckley, law professor at George Mason University, believes patronage networks and crony capitalism explain much of our present discontent with government and the people entrusted to run it.
Drawing from the founders’ debate notes at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Buckley weaves together moving speeches and secret committee notes to form a narrative that rivals anything Ken Burns has directed. The American project began by cutting legal privileges and egregious kickbacks, but we have sunk back into those old ways: a “government relations” aristocracy and shameless rent-seeking. The United States, due in part to the expanded powers of the presidency, compares unfavorably with other first-world countries (especially those with parliamentary governments) in its obscene amounts of nepotism and economic immobility.
His diagnosis is sobering, but Buckley’s gift—one many on the right sorely lack—is his ability to think creatively about solutions. He, like the founders, has no illusions about man’s fallen state. His policy prescriptions—lifting caps on campaign contributions, for example—are unorthodox, but the current campaign financing and lobbying laws are worse than useless: They invite backroom dealing and legal gymnastics. Buckley spends too little time defining virtue, but he does meticulously detail how far we have drifted from a republic whose mission is to inculcate it. Perhaps the way back to American exceptionalism is realizing that our current political system is wholly unexceptional.
Leading a Worthy Life:
Finding Meaning in Modern Times
by leon r. kass
encounter, 408 pages, $27.99
Though Leon Kass is best known as a bioethicist, at heart he is a humanist. Kass served as the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics but has spent most of his career teaching in Great Books programs at St. John’s College and the University of Chicago. His recent collection of essays explores the meaning of the good life in light of controversial topics—sex and marriage, euthanasia and biotechnology—as well as reading the great texts of human history. Kass notes that, in many respects, young people still desire to find a good spouse, do good work, and pursue goodness, truth, and beauty, but they lack guidance for how to go about doing these things. These essays are the fruit of decades spent providing such guidance.
Kass argues that liberal education is not a matter of cultural enrichment or acquiring intellectual skills, such as argumentation and critical thinking. Rather, it is “education in and for thoughtfulness,” the cultivation of a disposition to seek the truth and make it our own. Thoughtfulness recognizes that “ambiguity and mystery are in the nature of things,” and seeks not to eliminate perplexity and strangeness but to understand their true grounds. The great books are the best companions in this endeavor because they themselves embody such thoughtfulness.
Building the Benedict Option:
A Guide for Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name
by leah libresco
ignatius, 163 pages, $16.95
Living one’s faith alone, without preparation, is the religious equivalent of trying to run a marathon without so much as a jogging habit as preparation.” So begins Leah Libresco’s Building the Benedict Option. Unfortunately, Christians today often unintentionally find themselves living out the faith alone. We weren’t meant for this, but thankfully—as Libresco demonstrates—we can avoid it.
Libresco assures us we can instigate Christian community if we let go of great expectations and pick up what she terms the “little way of hospitality.” She admits that some of the most exciting Benedict Option possibilities—sending children to classical school or moving into a co-housing community—are beyond her at this point. But nothing can prevent her from loving and worshiping God with friends in small ways right now. From providing food and a gathering space for friends assembled to chip away at job applications, to throwing a Litany of the Saints party in a city park, Libresco’s ideas for building Christian fellowship seek to develop a more robust community amid obtrusive secularism.
translated by david ferry
university of chicago, 432 pages, $35
The students in my college classics society had a tradition of reading aloud the entirety of Virgil’s Aeneid in an all-night vigil each fall, hoping to experience something of the epic oral tradition (albeit in English). As the hours wore on, the vivacity of the story was lost amid lofty vocabulary and complicated syntax. We stayed awake because we were pleased with our erudition, not on account of the enthralling tale.
I imagine this would not have been the case had we had David Ferry’s translation of The Aeneid at hand. With accessible vocabulary and a steady but not strict use of iambic pentameter, Ferry’s take on the poem reads simply and smoothly. The language is not mellifluous, but it is deliciously clear.
The result is a poem more lively and cohesive than other translations English readers often encounter, like those of Robert Fitzgerald and Robert Fagles. In the telling of the sack of Troy, we don’t hear a historical narration; we hear Aeneas’s own voice. And we find that it is not the moaning of the homesick youth Aeneas is often made out to be, but rather the cry of a warrior who is fueled in turn by anger, anguish, pride, and love. This makes the second half of the poem—which sometimes reads as an unnecessarily lengthy battle—a profound exposition of Aeneas’s character. Ferry’s translation shows us, to use its own words, “a band of heroes that is small / but vitally alive for war and glory.”
Heretics and Believers:
A History of the English Reformation
by peter marshall
yale, 652 pages, $40
The author of 2 Maccabees—a contested book in Reformation England—reminds readers that a historian’s duty is “to occupy the ground, to discuss matters from every side, and to take trouble with details.” In Heretics and Believers, Peter Marshall more than fulfills this duty. Adeptly interlacing theology and high politics with the experiences and anxieties of everyday people, this volume not only illuminates perhaps the most transformative period of British history—approximately 1480 to 1590—but also offers compelling arguments for the ongoing significance of this “volcanic eruption of change.”
Marshall argues that the meaning of religion in Britain changed during the English Reformation because “habits of ‘doing’ religion themselves underwent transformative, irreversible changes.” Dramatic oscillations of national religious policy led to doctrinal plurality and to the emergence of rival confessional identities, both alongside and opposed to official programs of reform. These entrenched divisions led to a new awareness of being part of the faithful, as opposed to the fallen; to a sharpening of the social aspects of belief; and to the deployment of derogatory labels, such as “papist” and “puritan.” During the course of the sixteenth century, English society became an “uneasy aggregate of true and false Christians,” or “‘heretics’ and ‘believers’—people who knew they were in the right by their ability to point out those who were in the wrong.”
Despite the book’s daunting size, readers with little background in English history will find it accessible. Marshall provides a haunting portrait of an era of remarkable change. Well worth reading.
Churchill and Orwell:
The Fight for Freedom
by thomas e. ricks
penguin, 352 pages, $28
The last thing George Orwell wrote for publication was a review of Their Finest Hour, the second book in Winston S. Churchill’s six-volume classic, The Second World War. He approved: “[Churchill’s] writings are more like those of a human being than of a public figure.” For Orwell, “this was high praise,” observes Thomas E. Ricks in his dual biography of these great men.
The two never met, though they seem to have admired each other. The protagonist of 1984, Orwell’s famous dystopian novel, is called “Winston.” This can’t be random. For his part, Churchill apparently liked 1984 so much that he read it twice. Ricks, a veteran military journalist, insists that their connection runs deeper: “Together in the mid-twentieth century these two men led the way, politically and intellectually, in responding to the twin totalitarian threats of fascism and communism.”
That’s a fair assessment. For all of their differences in age and station, they shared a striking ability to perceive political truths and, perhaps more notably, exhibited “a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts” (as Orwell once wrote of himself).
The most unpleasant facts of the twentieth century were its murderous ideologies, embodied by Hitler and Stalin. In the struggle against them, Churchill became an indispensable statesman and Orwell a prophetic artist and essayist—and in each case, we’re lucky that their finest hour lasted a lifetime.
—John J. Miller