Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 100 (February 2000): 74-76.
The First and the Last. By Isaiah Berlin. New York Review Books. 141 pp. $19.95.
In 1996, two years before he died at the age of eighty–nine, Isaiah Berlin received a request from a professor of philosophy at Wuhan University in China, asking him to offer a précis of his core ideas for a Chinese audience. Berlin, one of the great antitotalitarian thinkers of the century, found the request intriguing—a sign, perhaps, of the growing pluralism of Chinese intellectual life—and "My Intellectual Path," the last major essay of his life and the key piece in this volume, resulted. The essay, a useful introduction to Berlin’s thought, reveals him at his best and at his worst. On the positive side, Berlin restates his decisive arguments against determinism of every kind, exhibits again his acute awareness of the human world as irreducibly tragic, and sketches his deeply informed reading of the history of modern Western intellectual life as an ongoing struggle between Enlightenment rationalism and romanticism—with neither capturing the whole truth about man. On the negative side, Berlin’s pluralism here sounds suspiciously like moral relativism—this is far from always true in his work—and he wrongly lumps together all of premodern thought as morally and politically monistic. The First and the Last also includes the earliest surviving piece of Berlin’s, written when he was just twelve: a fascinating and accomplished short story, "The Purpose Justifies the Ways," that grew out of his horror at witnessing a revolutionary lynch mob drag away a Czarist policeman, presumably to his death, during the Russian Revolution. It shows the young Berlin to be as fiercely antitotalitarian as would be the man who became the doyen of British political philosophy. In addition to Berlin’s first and last writings, the book reprints five tributes to Berlin from colleagues and former students.
— Brian C. Anderson
The Decline of Males. By Lionel Tiger. Golden Books. 323 pp. $23.
Anthropologist Lionel Tiger (Men in Groups) consistently informs and provokes. This time around he explains why the contraceptive revolution (including abortion) has created a historically unprecedented situation in which women have assumed control over reproduction, thus making men, for the most part, expendable. Tiger’s forte is neither moral philosophy nor public policy, but his data and analysis provide important grist for all the intellectual mills pertinent to figuring out what is happening and why to marriage, family, and child rearing.
Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage in the Light of John Paul II’s Anthropology. By Mary Shivanandan. Catholic University of America Press. 324 pp. $24.95 paper.
A thorough study of the foundations and cultural implications of the Pope’s views on love, marriage, and family. The author, who teaches at the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and the Family, makes use of the whole gamut of Karol Wojtyla’s literary output to give one of the best overviews yet of his thought on these most important questions. Shivanandan’s investigation of the foundations of John Paul II’s thought is especially well done, and three chapters examining the deeper issues behind the birth control movement and Natural Family Planning are quite useful. Despite poor editing, which makes this generally thoughtful and accessible book read at times like a doctoral thesis, it is a crucial resource for understanding the Pope’s vision of marriage, and what it means to put that vision into action.
Choosing Equality: School Choice, the Constitution, and Civil Society. By Joseph P. Viteritti. Brookings. 282 pp. $29.95.
Written from what might be de scribed as a moderately liberal perspective, this argument for parental choice in education is pitched to those who may be hostile to the idea, and especially to vouchers or other programs that include religious schools. Viteritti is un doubtedly right in thinking that parental choice is an idea whose time has come, and one may hope that he is right in thinking the Supreme Court will uphold this move toward equality of educational opportunity.
A Catholic Modernity? Charles Taylor’s Marianist Award Lecture. Edited by James L. Heft. Oxford University Press. 130 pp. $22.
This is a very little but very important book. The centerpiece is the title essay by McGill University philosopher Charles Taylor, with four responses (by William M. Shea, Rosemary Luling Haughton, George Marsden, and Jean Bethke Elshtain) followed by Taylor’s response to the responses. The great question, according to Taylor, is not how to be modern Catholics but how to be Catholic moderns in a circumstance that is not unlike that of Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), the Jesuit missionary in China who had to sort through what could be assimilated and what must be rejected in a culture alien to Christianity. Christians, says Taylor, must affirm the great achievements of modernity—in some cases achieved against Christendom—while being alert to the fatal inadequacies of a secular humanism that excludes the transcendent. The best Christian strategy, he suggests, is one of sympathetic cultural engagement that opens a reductive secularism to the transcendent truths that can alone sustain the achievements of modernity. Taylor’s lecture and the discussion surrounding it offer an occasion of rare grace and lucidity in trying to understand how to be Christian in a culture whose intellectual elites have, for the most part, decided that Christianity is either irrelevant or threatening.
A Sacrifice of Praise: An Anthology of Christian Poetry in English from Caedmon to the Mid–Twentieth Century. Edited by James H. Trott. Cumberland House. 797 pp. $24.95 paper.
A labor of love to be received as a gift by those who know that man is not only the caretaker but the cantor of creation. Of the twelve centuries of poetry included, nearly a hundred pages are devoted to the first half of the twentieth (the editor had to stop somewhere). It is a century of praise more hesitantly, often obliquely, sometimes ironically, expressed. But, for all that, not less intensely. A splendid book to be kept close at hand and visited again and again.
Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. Edited by Niall Ferguson. Basic. 450 pp. $30.
What if Charles I had defeated the Covenanters, Britain had not entered World War I, Hitler had defeated Stalin, JFK had not been assassinated, and there had been no Cold War? These are among the questions entertainingly explored in playing "What if . . . ?" The entertainment gets off to a rocky start with a very long and intellectually inflated essay by editor Ferguson, insisting that this kind of exercise is ever so much more than a historians’ parlor game, that it engages the deepest questions of the philosophy of history, the mystery of time, and what counts as reality. Such heavy duty ponderings aside, the reader is invited to join nine imaginative historians who have great fun in presenting counterfactual possibilities in a most readable fashion, in the course of which one is strengthened in the commonsensical belief that human beings, who have a capacity for freedom, make decisions that have consequences. Reading about what did not happen can be an interesting way of thinking again about what did.
Orestes Brownson: Sign of Contradiction. By R. A. Herrera. Intercollegiate Studies Institute. 234 pp. $24.95.
Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803–1876) was a prolific intellectual gadfly who went through Congregationalism, Unitarianism, several of his own invented spiritualities, and finally ended up as one of the best known, if controversial, Catholic writers of the nineteenth century. R. A. Herrera tells a lively story in a lively manner, concluding that Brownson is today undeservedly neglected, while at the same time suggesting that he was a period piece eccentric who is deservedly neglected.
Enduring Liberalism: American Political Thought Since the 1960s. By Robert Booth Fowler. University Press of Kansas. 330 pp. $35.
A professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin who has written extensively on American religion here offers a thoughtful over view of our political temper and tensions. While public intellectuals are inclined to polemicize against liberalism from both the right and the left, Professor Fowler believes that they, like most Americans, work within an enduringly liberal framework, which he thinks a very good thing. Critically sympathetic toward sundry communitarianisms, Fowler’s capacious understanding of liberalism includes the community of thinkers associated with this journal whose critique of liberalism he is inclined to view as eminently liberal. Scholarly and fair–minded throughout, his complaisant conclusion might by some be mistaken for complacency.
The Necessity of Politics: Reclaiming American Public Life. By Christopher Beem. University of Chicago Press. 311 pp. $28.
The author traces the much–discussed "civil society" movement through the thought of Nisbet, Ber ger, Neuhaus, Putnam, et al., all of whom he identifies with the tradition of Tocqueville. While he is sympathetic to this intellectual and public policy turn, he believes it does not do justice to the indispensable role of the state, especially as a pedagogue inculcating and sustaining a public moral consensus. As a corrective, he invokes—some will think surprisingly—Hegel. Acknowledging the excesses of political Hegelianism, Beem thinks that it can be safely contained within the American democratic tradition. An interesting, if not entirely persuasive, argument.
Commonweal Confronts the Century: Liberal Convictions, Catholic Traditions. Edited by Patrick Jordan and Paul Baumann. Simon & Schuster. 411 pp. $18 paper.
Commonweal, the liberal Catholic magazine, has turned seventy–five, and here are collected some its best by Wilfred Sheed, Daniel Callahan, John Lukacs, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, and many other distinguished contributors. Commonweal’s liberalism is different from the Catholic left, represented by, for instance, the National Catholic Reporter. Some on the right might say that the chief difference is that its dissent from orthodoxy is more insidious, but in fact its editors frequently demonstrate a capacity to be self–critical about their liberalism and are clearly serious, if nervous, about the normative truths of Catholicism. Yet the subtitle is telling. Should it not be Catholic Convictions, Liberal Traditions? As it is, the reader might get the wrong impression: that Catholic tradition is a qualifying, even limiting, factor relative to what the editors really care about. That does not do justice to Commonweal’s role as the custodian of a Catholic liberalism that is not without honor.
Ecumenism: Present Realities and Future Prospects. Edited by Lawrence S. Cunningham. University of Notre Dame Press. 196 pp. $35.
Papers from a 1997 conference at the Tantur Ecumenical Center outside Jerusalem. Of particular interest are church historian Jaroslav Pelikan (then Lutheran, now Orthodox) on the Tradition that unites and the traditions that divide, and Orthodox theologian Thomas Hopko on how Orthodoxy understands its engagement in the ecumenical task.
The Saints in the Lives of Italian–Americans: An Interdisciplinary Investigation. Edited by Joseph A. Varacalli, Salvatore Primeggia, Salvatore J. LaGumina, and Donald J. D’Elia. Forum Italicum. 323 pp. $20.
A collection of scholarly essays from historical, cultural, sociological, and theological perspectives that explore the ways in which Italian–American identity has been shaped by devotion to the saints. Included are studies of, inter alia, popular religiosity, spiritual tradition, ethnicity, parish life, "realistic multiculturalism," and the "incarnational realism" that is a hallmark of Italian–American identity. This book is, in the first place, a fascinating study of one of America’s most successful ethnic groups. Perhaps more important for readers of this journal, it demonstrates that when religion becomes a force in social and cultural life, the result is not a deadened public square but a more vibrant one.
Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A. Eerdmans. 902 pp. $75.
This is a magnificent achievement. In the foreword, Jaroslav Pelikan writes, "At first glance it might seem to be an excessive loyalty to tradition and an example of scholarly overkill to devote an entire encyclopedia of almost a thousand pages to one man, even if that man is Augustine of Hippo." He goes on to explain, most persuasively, why such a book is needed. Almost 150 scholars contribute 500 articles on every aspect of Augustine’s life, thought, and influence. The "through the ages" in the title underscores an additional factor that makes this book so singular: articles detail the influence of Augustine on others, and how his thought has been both used and misused, from his own time right up to the present. Robert Louis Wilken does not exaggerate when he says this "is a book to savor, to return to often, and to open with anticipation. It will quickly become indispensable." Essential for academic libra ries, this splendid book is warmly recommended for parish and personal collections, where it should receive regular use by Christians who understand that, whether we know it or not, we are all Augustinians now—and have been for a millennium and a half.
Churchgoing and Christian Ethics. By Robin Gill. Cambridge University Press. 277 pp. $64.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.
A vigorous sociological challenge to Christian thinkers such as Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank who, says Gill, offer an idealistic (meaning unreal) view of a Church composed of "resident aliens" who are a community of virtue in an unvirtuous society. Drawing chiefly on data from the U.K., Gill contends that churchgoing Christians are not that different from their fellow citizens in the earthly city. A virtue theory that rests on social narrative, contends Gill, needs to be in more believable contact with social facts.
Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard. Edited and compiled by Charles E. Moore. Plough. 430 pp. $14 paper.
This thoughtful selection of Kier kegaard’s writings serves on several levels. In the first place, it makes the otherwise daunting Kierkegaard accessible in an inviting format. Secondly, its logical arrangement of texts presents the major themes of his work, as in the sections "To Will One Thing," "Truth and the Inwardness of Passion," and "Anxiety and the Gospel of Suffering." And thirdly the book is prayerful: it invites worshipful devotion as much as intellectual reflection, a rare and rewarding combination.