Nobility of Spirit, by Rob Riemen
A thin, but powerfully written book in which man’s dual nature is explored and the spiritual side highlighted. Riemen emphasizes the importance of the world of ideas in the classical sense and appeals to our intellectuals to take seriously their role as the guardians of universal values such as truth, beauty, piety, and goodness. This line is telling in his theme: “One thing we certainly know is that if the discrepancy between politics and people on the one hand and the intellectual elite on the other–the ‘guardians’–is so huge as to be irreconcilable, then the ideal of civilization, whatever it may be, is in deep trouble.”
Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, by Christopher Hitchens
A very interesting take on the life and work of a true maverick by my favorite leftist atheist, with whom I almost totally disagree (the war in Iraq being the exception), but who is one of the most gifted writers of my experience. Paine, of course, has the distinction of being an ideological catalyst for two of the most transforming revolutions in world history, and Hitchens does a good job of weaving the events together as well as describing the intellectual debate between Paine and his adversary, Edmund Burke. He also has some interesting points to make on the legacy of Paine.
The Case for Greatness, by Robert Faulkner
Faulkner, a political scientist at Boston College, takes a fresh look with great insight at political ambition, both the good and the bad, with particular emphasis on honorable ambition. He treats some often-visited theories in a different light, and makes common sense distinctions between the good and the bad of political ambition in our leaders. The chapter on George Washington is particularly insightful. Another good treatment is that of Aristotle’s ethics as they pertain to the primary virtues. His theme is magnanimity, or greatness of soul, and of its manifestation in history by “great souled men”, but he cautions us to be wary of those who would “remake the world”. Faulkner makes a valiant attempt to lead us back to common sense and away from many of the abstractions that dominate postmodern thought. I wish him well, but he will get no help from our elite institutions.
A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, by William J. Bernstein
This is a really good read. In fact, it deserves more depth, and I might soon write a more comprehensive essay on some of the thoughts in it. For starters, it is a broad sweeping history of world trade that put it all in the best perspective that has ever been presented to me. And by sweeping, I mean from Sumer in 3000BC to the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle in 1999. It also engages the ideological aspects of the ongoing debate and clearly identifies the wedge issues that must be resolved if we are to maintain a relatively peaceful free trading environment in the world. Bernstein tells a good story and is also an accomplished economic theorist.
Defending Identity, by Natan Sharansky
That man is back! The author of The Case for Democracy, who probably had as much or more influence as anyone on George W. Bush’s thinking in the formative period of his Middle Eastern policy, has written this sequel to explain why democracy is necessary, but insufficient, to enable a nation-state to achieve prosperity for its people and peace with its neighbors. An often missing (and even more often dismissed as damaging) ingredient is a strong cultural identity based on the shared bonds of history, religion, language, and cultural mores that constitute and give purpose to the society. In Sharansky’s view, this strong identity has an absolutely indispensable role in protecting democracy, particularly the newly-formed ones, because democracy cannot long survive in a society in which a large proportion of the populace is not willing to pay the ultimate price in human terms to defend it. Some of his narrative, particularly the part on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, is pretty controversial stuff, and Sharansky draws a distinction between “good” and “bad” identity, which is important, but his overall thesis resonates with me. A sample passage: “If individuals are not bound by a commitment to history and tradition, if the connection between generations is broken and destroyed, there will be no passion and depth of emotion. If all identity is seen as fluid, if nationality is merely political and not cultural, if it is seen as imaginary and therefore deluded, the mystic connections in time and space–what Abraham Lincoln called the mystic cords of memory–are lost.”