Probably like most of you, I have had an unusual amount of time for reading in this pandemic period, so here are comments on a few recent books I have read, a couple of them old favorites, and it’s not coincidental that there is quite a bit of overlap in the underlying theme, which is American founding principles and recent attempts to discredit their success.
America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, by Robert R. Reilly
This is a detailed survey and inquiry into what the author terms “the lineage of the ideas that made the United States possible” and he has undertaken this inquiry because of an ongoing controversy about these ideas. The most outspoken sparks in the controversy are Patrick Deneen at the University of Notre Dame and Michael Hanby, a scholar at the Vatican, and there have been more recent and related critiques by others, including Francis Fukuyama in his essay, “Liberalism and Its Discontents”. I have previously commented on Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed, which is the most compelling treatment I have seen. All of the critiques have similarities, typically along lines from Dineen as follows: “Liberalism has failed–not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It failed because it succeeded….it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims yet realizations of liberal ideology….including titanic inequality, forced uniformity, material spiritual degradation, and the undermining of freedom”.
Reilly takes over 300 pages to (very successfully in my opinion) rebut this charge and the result is a treatise on America’s founding ideals and the sources thereof that constitute the essentials of the Western intellectual tradition without which America would be inconceivable, as he outlines as follows in the opening pages:
“From Athens: the existence of universal truth, a rational universe ordered by a divine intellect, the primacy of reason in man’s moral life, the existence and immutability of human nature, and the existence and immutability of the human soul. From Jerusalem: monotheism, creation ex nihilo, the fundamental goodness and reliability of creation, man made in the image of God, and salvation history. Finally, from Rome (Christianity): the universalization of the truths of Judaism stated above, the Incarnation and the culmination of salvation history in Christ, the dedivinization of the world (the final end of pantheism), the separation of the sacred from the secular, and the recognition of the inviolability of the individual person.”
And so it goes from there to the Founders. Not an easy lift, but a much-needed intellectual counter punch and well worth the effort.
Natural Right and History, by Leo Strauss
This is a classic from 1953, and when several years ago I featured by top 10 books, it probably came in at number 11. I first read it sometime in the mid-1990s with my Great Books discussion group and have referred to it numerous times, but this was my first complete reading in quite some time. Strauss opens it with an invocation of the Declaration of Independence and its second paragraph wherein the Founders asserted their belief in self-evident truths and unalienable rights, and he reminds readers of the indispensable role of these natural rights in America’s founding. What follows is a magnificent and in-depth review of the principles of natural right, beginning with the origin of the idea, the characteristics of classic natural right, modern natural right as expounded by Hobbes and Locke, and the crisis of modern natural right through the thought of Rousseau and Burke. As usual in his thought, Strauss is most concerned about the German idealism that has chipped away at natural right in adherence to relativism and historicism over the past century, a subject so well treated by his student Allan Bloom in his 1987 classic, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Again, this is pretty heavy, but we should listen to Strauss.
Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law, by J. Budziszewski
This is a textbook style treatment of the grounding and history of the natural law tradition that I first encountered over 20 years ago, and I have not seen a better treatment of the subject since. It is both a primer for young students and a forceful argument for seasoned scholars. Budziszewski takes the reader through the thought of natural law architects, including Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and John Locke, and then takes up a sampling of contemporary thinkers and their critique through philosophy, theology, and political science and has answers to current “pushback” from these scholars that makes for lively debate. This book is almost like a classroom and is very accessible, with suggested “questions for reflection” at the end of each chapter that are very helpful, particularly for a group discussion.
The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
This book was originally published in 1991 and re-published with slight updates in 1998. This was my first reading, and it couldn’t be more timely. Of course, Schlesinger was an establishment liberal of the first order, one that fits my idea of “the responsible left”, of which there are a shrinking few. One reviewer said that the book “is an expression of the old liberalism, supplanted by leftism and other flavors of illiberalism. It is conservative, in a sense: protective of the American Creed, as Schlesinger writes, with no irony and with those capital letters.” I totally agree.
As he explains in his foreword, Schlesinger poses several critical questions that America must answer in this century that was just beginning. What happens when people of different ethnic origins, speaking different languages and professing different religions, settle in the same geographical locality and live under the same political sovereignty? Unless a common purpose binds them together, tribal antagonisms will drive them apart. In the century darkly ahead, civilization faces a critical question: What is it that holds a nation together?
For him, then, this book is about the question, is the motto e pluribus unum still valid? And in answering this question he warns that “the contemporary sanctification of the group threatens the old idea of a coherent society”–a society never based on race, ethnicity, or religion, but on “a common adherence to ideals of democracy and human rights.” In short, can the center hold?