Books in Review

Briefly Noted

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 101 (March 2000): 88-95.

A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition. By John Rawls. Belknap/Harvard University Press. 538 pp. $22.

Among academics, John Rawls’ massive 1971 book A Theory of Justice is arguably the most influential work of political philosophy published in the second half of the twentieth century. It has spawned innumerable commentaries, so that the pages of pro fessional political theory journals like Philosophy and Public Affairs often drearily read like extended meditations on Rawls’ thought. Now, almost thirty years after A Theory of Justice’s first appearance, Harvard University Press has published a new, revised edition of the book. Though Rawls has modified the text—the new edition follows the German translation of 1975, when Rawls first made the changes—it still is astonishingly out of touch with anything resembling political life as we know it, in our time or any time. Bereft of a coherent theory of human nature, unconcerned with social theory or history, silent on the most powerful dilemmas and tragedies of the age—from the struggle between free societies and their totalitarian enemies to the weaknesses of democratic regimes to the role of religion in public life—A Theory of Justice is political philosophy designed by and for liberal Harvard professors. To articulate his central idea of justice as fairness, Rawls famously asks us to imagine being behind a "veil of ignorance," stripped of everything that makes us who we are—our passionate convictions, our abilities, our attachments and affinities—and then to decide what kind of society we want to live in. Since behind the veil we don’t know if we’re talented or talentless, rich or poor, ambitious or lazy, Rawls tells us, we’d want a society in which inequalities of wealth and power could only be justified if they benefited, not society as a whole, but those at the bottom—since the lazy or talentless might be me and you. This egalitarianism, achieved through law and politics, would become the touchstone of any just society. In Rawls’ coercive vision, a kind of liberal authoritarianism, society claims everything the individual owns—including his talent—for the sake of the least successful. In practice, A Theory of Justice’s agenda would result in a bloated government, robbing human beings of their initiative, their liberty, and (though Rawls appears ignorant of this obvious fact of economics) their prosperity. By abstracting himself from the differences in conviction, ability, motivation, attachment, and affinity that make up the real life of politics, Rawls empties political philosophy of content. He "solves" the political problem, in effect, by doing away with politics. The new edition addresses none of the glaring weaknesses of Rawls’ approach. The principal changes are either cosmetic or, more tellingly, qualifications downplaying some of the egalitarian excesses of the original. In the original edition, for instance, Rawls argues that "no one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society. But it does not follow that one should eliminate these distinctions. There is another way to deal with them." Critics keyed in on the implicit authoritarianism of Rawls’ argument: What if there wasn’t another way to deal with them? How would we "eliminate" them? Now Rawls sounds a little more sober. Replacing the last two sentences of the quote above: "But of course, this is no reason to ignore, much less eliminate, these distinctions." There are several such examples. But even in its slightly more prudent version, Rawls’ hubristic and barren book still stands as a model of how not to think about politics.

— Brian C. Anderson

Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. By Bart D. Ehrman. Oxford University Press. 274 pp. $25.

Historical criticism of the Bible often resembles Winston Churchill’s famous description of democracy: the worst form of government ever invented—except for all the others. When one compares historical criticism to the more exotic reveries of the Church Fathers, for example, one cannot help but welcome more sober methods that try to give us, to the extent possible, what the biblical author might actually have had in mind. But a steady diet of the dreary fact–mongering that often passes for historical–critical method can make one suddenly long for a romanticized Antiquity or Middle Ages, much like industrial Victorians who developed a taste for Gothic architecture and the novels of Sir Walter Scott. In any event, Bart Ehrman has written what might be called in that regard the worst life of Jesus ever written—except for all the others. All of the virtues of the historical method applied to Jesus Christ are here abundantly displayed: sober dissection of the evidence available, a firm rejection of the loonier theories of historical critics (such as the thesis that Jesus was a Galilean Cynic philoso pher), and a vivid sense for the historical context in which the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth would alone make sense. But the vices of the method are there as well: sometimes the author’s engaging style becomes too flippant, especially given the sacredness of his topic; and he too easily jumps to the same conclusion as did Albert Schweitzer. Certainly Ehrman has rightly argued that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet whose ethics would make no sense except in terms of an imminent eschaton; but as Hans Urs von Balthasar has shown, Jesus was not, pace Schweitzer and Ehrman, mistaken about the nearness of the end. Rather, his God–consciousness was so all–absorbing and total, and the entrance of the eternal God into time was so singular, that Jesus’ death was for him necessarily the end of this world and the beginning of the new world of God’s Kingdom. But for a rhetorically effective antidote to the nonsense so often purveyed by historians of the historical Jesus, this is the book to read.

— Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence. Edited by Herbert Agar and Allen Tate. ISI Books. 450 pp. $24.95.

In 1930 "Twelve Southerners" pub lished a collection of essays under the title I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. It came to be regarded as the classic statement—the "manifesto"—of Southern Agrarianism. The volume intended as its sequel is less well known, and unfortunately so, for its concerns were less culture–bound. Published in 1936, Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence was less distinctly Southern and cultural, more broadly national and political. Allen Tate, one of the original Twelve Southerners, teamed up with Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Herbert Agar to collect twenty–one essays, not just from Southern Agrarians but from English distributists and a variety of other "decentralists"—historians, economists, psychologists, social theorists, literary critics, and poets who advocated the virtues of widely distributed proprietorship and comparative political and economic independence. The result was a book deeply informed by what we have since learned to call the principle of subsidiarity, which is the reason for its continuing, even increasing, relevance. As Agar put it in his Introduction, the book is about "the American dream"—the dream of widespread freedom, independence, and self–government. Those from whom Agar anticipated criticism seven decades ago are still the most likely to dissent: "the friends of Big Business, who dishonor the dream by saying that it has been realized, that it lies all about us today." Yes, the book represents a conservative critique of capitalism, or rather of plutocracy and "monop oly capitalism"; not socialists or central planners, these localists were lovers of liberty and property one and all. Their complaint was not with market freedom, but with the increasing dependence of men on centralized power, and with the prevailing quasi–Marxist confidence in the inevitability of that dependence. Of course, since the 1930s technolo gy and the mass economy have only become more entwined with politics and the social order, and opposition to centralization and consolidation has hardly been rendered unneces sary by the collapse of communism. Indeed, with the triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy, what constitutes just order and humane scale are still our persistent economic, social, and political questions. Those who think seriously about such questions should not be deprived of their full intellectual patrimony, but for too long these challenging essays have been out of print and hard to come by. At last there is a new edition brought out by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. All of the original essays are here, from Tate, Agar, and other such recognizable names as Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, Andrew Lytle, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Hilaire Belloc. The collection is framed by new material by Edward Shapiro: brief biographies of each contributor and, in a new Foreword, detailed historical background and some contemporary perspective. The republication of this volume fills a lacuna in the available literature of American political thought, and there is no longer any excuse for theorists of freedom, community, and democracy to neglect the decentralist tradition exemplified by these essays.

— Joshua P. Hochschild

The American Myth of Religious Freedom. By Kenneth R. Craycraft, Jr. Spence. 226 pp. $27.95.

If politics makes strange bedfellows, religious politics makes stranger yet. At every juncture in this adapted dissertation, right–wing Straussian Catholic Kenneth R. Craycraft agrees with the position regarding American religious freedom advanced by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, namely, that the Constitution requires a naked public square. Without taking into account the alternative interpretations advanced in these pages and elsewhere, Dr. Craycraft accepts all of the following: the New York Times’ claim that a bishop who excommunicates a politician violates the First Amendment; Harold Bloom’s de scription of Christianity in America since the Pilgrims as basically heterodox and Gnostic; Hobbes’ understanding of natural rights as the assertion of individual autonomy; the view of Locke, Jefferson, and Madison that the Catholic Church is the enemy of religious freedom; and John Rawls’ view that liberalism cannot accept those who claim to know a truth originating outside themselves. Quite understandably, then, Craycraft is not a big fan of American religious liberty, and does not want the Catholic Church (or any similar orthodox Christian church) to defend the American arrangement too heartily. As readers of this journal are well aware, however, there is a case to be made that the First Amendment encourages religion in public life, that American Protestantism is not exactly Gnostic, that there is a tradition of natural rights theories dating back to the Middle Ages that is compatible with natural and divine law (a point pressed home by, inter alia, Craycraft’s dissertation advisor Ernest Fortin, a member of the First Things Editorial Advisory Board), that the Catholic Church is a promoter of religious freedom, and that the liberal state cannot flourish unless it acknowledges a source of legitimacy greater than itself. It would not be incorrect to say that this latter view of the religious question has gained the upper hand in public discourse today, with only the Times, Professors Bloom and Rawls, some justices of the Supreme Court, and a few recalcitrant others seriously defending the earlier position. This leaves one thinking that Dr. Craycraft’s book might have been a stimulating romp—had it been published in 1979. That such a promising intellectual (and occasional contributor to this journal) seems to have ignored the state of the question makes one realize that, even after ten years of First Things, there is still work to be done.

Hating Whitey and Other Progressive Causes. By David Horowitz. Spence. 300 pages. $24.95.

The author has, with Peter Collier, written best–selling books on, inter alia, the Kennedys and Rockefellers, and his Radical Son of 1997 stirred considerable—and, for the most part, constructive—controversy. Born into the world of the Communist Party in New York, Horowitz was in the sixties among the most prominent radical intellectuals. The present book in many way updates Radical Son, exposing the fatuities and dishonesties that characterize a left that the left stubbornly denies exists. Horowitz is a vigorous writer and relentless polemicist. When his arguments are not being ignored by those he criticizes, they are derided as the product of Horowitz’s psycho logical need to continue in the radical mode of the sixties under the guise of conservative zealotry. In fact, Hating Whitey, like Radical Son, is a most instructive political tract for the times. Horowitz concludes that "heroic myths," such as that of the socialist revolution in its myriad reconfigurations, will continue as long as people persist in denying their mortality.

The Bridge Over the Racial Divide: Rising Inequality and Coalition Politics. By William Julius Wilson. University of California Press. 162 pp. $19.95.

The author, a sociologist who over the years has argued for the priority of economics over race, says the purpose of the present tract is to help create a broad–based multiracial coalition, including liberal old–line churches, to redress economic inequalities. He recognizes, however, that it will be difficult to build the coalition he has in mind in times of continuing economic prosperity.

The Catholic Imagination. By Andrew Greeley. University of California Press. 198 pp. $22.

Father Andrew Greeley has done much to give currency to the notion of the "cultural Catholic"—as distinct from the doctrinal, moral, or sacramental Catholic. Cultural Catholics may disagree with Church teaching and absent themselves from Mass, but they know they are incorrigibly, and for the most part happily, part of "the Catholic thing." The pres ent book is a sociological riff on "the analogical imagination" developed by theologian David Tracy of the University of Chicago. When it comes to sex, community, art, salvation, and much else, there is a distinctive Catholic sensibility that is borne out also by social science data, although Greeley admits that the correlations he finds are sometimes tenuous. Although he repeatedly says that the Catholic sensibility is only different from, and not necessarily better than, Protestant and other sensibilities, he obviously believes it is better. As might be expected from the writer of sometimes salacious novels, Greeley is again enthusiastic about sacred horniness. The book is well worth a read, however, keeping in mind more firmly than Fr. Greeley does that the doctrinal, moral, and sac ramental undergirds "the Cath olic imagination," grounding it in truth. Without that grounding, Cath olic sensibility becomes something like Jewishness without Judaism, a limping vestige of a once living faith.

Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator. By Arthur Herman. Free Press. 405 pp. $26.

A very readable and informative exercise in historical revisionism. At times Herman, in order to fairly tell "the other side" of the story, falls into defending the indefensible, but his con cluding narrative of Joe Mc Carthy’s downfall, decline, and death is both moving and devastating. Herman is certainly correct in saying that, from what we know now, McCarthy was more often right than wrong about Communist spying and subversion in the U.S.—certainly he was more right than the establishment that relentlessly, and often viciously, attacked him—but when he was wrong he was terribly wrong. While the author agrees that McCarthy contributed to the myth of "McCarthyism" that was so dishonestly exploited by the anti–anti–Communists, his main fire is directed at the liberal and fellow traveling apologists for "the evil empire." For those who know only the conventional account of the evils of McCarthyism, this is a necessary book.

The Fabric of Hope. By Glenn Tinder. Scholars Press. 240 pp. $21.95 paper.

The author, who is no stranger to these pages, offers a graceful and learned exploration of the virtue of hope in its several representations and misrepresentations. He incisively debunks the delusory hopes of modernity, and makes a convincing case that hopeful engagement in everything from personal relations to politics requires a firm hold on the "last things" that make it reasonable to speak of final judgment and vindication.

Cantate et Iubilate Deo: A Devotional and Liturgical Hymnal. James Socias, General Editor. Midwest Theological Forum/Sceptre/Our Sunday Visitor. 228 pp. $29.95.

Intended as a supplementary re source for small settings of the Catholic Mass and for paraliturgical de votions, this beautifully prepared hymnal includes both very familiar and not–so–familiar texts and music of some of the Church’s most treasured hymns. Each hymn is accompanied by an introduction that provides the back ground of the music, ex plains the spiritual point of the text, and suggests the liturgical occasion on which it is most appropriately used. Welcome is the inclusion of several traditional Latin arrangements of the Mass, as well as texts no longer used in the liturgy, such as the "Dies Irae." All the Latin texts are translated well. A worthy contribution to any chapel, and to the movement for liturgical reform.

Reconstructing History: The Emergence of a New Historical Society. Edited by Elizabeth Fox–Genovese and Elisabeth Lasch–Quinn. Routledge. 373 pp. $21.99 paper.

In 1998, under the presidency of the distinguished Eugene Genovese, the Historical Society was launched as an alternative to academic societies that had largely succumbed to the postmodernist and feminist trendiness that has undermined serious scholarship. Drawing historians from the left, the right, and points undetermined, the new society has quickly established itself as a major influence in the academy. The essays in this book (by, among others, John Patrick Diggins, Russell Jacoby, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Leo Ribuffo, and Sean Wilentz) testify to the society’s heartening success. Of particular interest are the discussions over efforts to establish national standards for the teaching of American history.

The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is. By N. T. Wright. InterVarsity. 202 pp. $14.

Anglican New Testament scholar Wright provides a treatment of "the historical Jesus" that is attentive to both critical scholarship and living faith. The present book is a generally accessible version of his more academic Jesus and the Victory of God.

The Third Millennium: Reflections on Faith and Reason. By David Walsh. Georgetown University Press. 242 pp. $65 cloth, $23.95 paper.

The author teaches politics at Catholic University of America but is very much a philosopher in the mind and spirit of Eric Voegelin. These "reflections" are frequently meditative in character, accompanying the reader along the way into "the third millennium of Christ," who is the historically unsurpassable revelation of Being as Love. Walsh’s faith and reason are joined in their universal reach, while respectful of the particularities that give meaning to the whole.

Equality and Liberty: Theory and Practice in American Politics. By Harry V. Jaffa. Claremont Institute. 235 pp. $25.

In honor of Jaffa’s eightieth birthday, Claremont is reprinting six of his books that are out of print. The present volume, published in 1965, is a ringing defense of the Declaration of Independence and natural law as the foundation of the American Repub lic. It develops themes addressed in his earlier Crisis of the House Divided (discussed in this issue’s symposium) and is dedicated, appropriately, to Leo Strauss.

Controversial Concordats. Edited by Frank J. Coppa. Catholic University of America Press. 248 pp. $24.95 paper.

A useful study of the Vatican’s relations with Napoleon, Mussolini, and the Third Reich. The conclusion is that the Church today relies less on concordats or comprehensive legal agreements with regimes and more on its independent spiritual influence in protecting its own mission and basic human rights.

The Day After: Religious Dissent in the Presidential Crisis. By Gabriel Fackre. Eerdmans. 74 pp. $10 paper.

A retrospective on what religious leaders, mainly in the Protestant mainline, had to say about the Clinton impeachment and related debates about public morality, and on the response to the book on the same subject, Judgment Day at the White House, also edited by Fackre.

The End of Time: A Meditation on the Philosophy of History. By Josef Pieper. Translated by Michael Bullock. Ignatius. 161 pp. $11.95 paper.

Thanks to Ignatius Press for bringing back into print this splendid reflection on the nature of hope for a history that provides so many reasons for despair. The despair of grace–denying modernity, Pieper convincingly argues, is only thinly veiled by delusions of historical optimism. His proposal is that only those prepared to shed their martyr blood in witness to eternal truth are fortified to live honestly in a world bounded by time.