John B. Kienker
Managing Editor, Claremont Review of Books
Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State, by William Voegeli
Voegeli's blockbuster is a welcome boon to conservatives in need of a keen, searching critique of the modern welfare state and, really, to liberals who want a fair, thoughtful assessment of what they profess. Growing out of a series of essays for the Claremont Review of Books (see here and here, for example, and here for more Voegeli goodness), the title refers to liberalism's lack of a limiting principle: there is no ideal size to our ever-expanding welfare state, no goal trying to be achieved; just an indiscriminate, expensive, corrupt mess. For the sake of real reform, Voegeli urges conservatives to come to terms with the continued existence of a welfare state, and liberals to begin working toward one that is fundamentally smarter and more efficient, not only to avoid bankrupting the country but to best help those who need the help.
War: Ends and Means, by Angelo Codevilla and Paul Seabury
This title remains the indispensable textbook on war and peace for the general reader who wants to learn what they are and what they aren't—and why the horrors of war are sometimes preferable. Dispelling today's conventional wisdom by drawing on numerous examples throughout history, the authors provide a masterly tutorial on when, why, and how wars are fought, and how they are concluded in a way that results in true peace, the tranquility of order.
The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church, by John L. Allen, Jr.
One of the finest journalists covering the Catholic Church today, Allen devotes a chapter to each of the ten trends he outlines (including Islam, the biotech revolution, and globalization), closing each chapter with predictions ranging from near-certain, to possible, to long-shots. Overall, he argues that the Church will become more truly universal over the next century as the global—South-Africa, Latin America, and Asia—comes to have a greater influence on the Church's priorities, tone, and outlook, reflecting Catholicism's growing strength in these parts of the world. This shift, Allen expects, will mean a Church that is more morally conservative, biblical, youthful, charismatic, ecumenical, and lay-lead, and at the same time more favorable to wealth redistribution, the United Nations, and environmental concerns.
We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism, by John Derbyshire
So caught up are we with the joys of Christmas, we forget that Advent is a penitential season. And what better way to sober up after the sweeping midterm elections than with this grinchy treat, in which the Derb throws cold water on the notion that we are poised for sweeping conservative victories anytime soon. I don't agree with everything he says, but he says it with wit and verve, and as a fellow pessimist, his general theme that "things are bad and getting worse for our movement, our nation, and our civilization" sounds about right to me. At least, ask me again in 25 months after President Obama's Second Inaugural.
We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future, by Matthew Spalding
Last year I called this book "perhaps the single best introduction to the political thought of the American Founding." Now in paperback and expanded with a video and leader guide, it makes a great gift.
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Professor, Naval and Military Strategy, U.S. Naval War College
If anyone needs to be convinced of war's central importance in the story of mankind, the book to consult is Azar Gat's War in Human Civilization. A political scientist who teaches at Tel Aviv University (as well as a reserve officer in the Israeli army), Gat brings an impressive learning across many fields to this monumental work, which is especially interesting on the place of war in "the evolutionary state of nature" and among primitive tribes.
Similarly ambitious in scope and historical reach is Daniel H. Deudney, Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village, a radical rethinking of the theory of international relations as conventionally conceived. Though his tendency to academic jargon and neologisms will put off some readers, Deudney achieves nothing less than an Aufhebung of contemporary realist and liberal internationalist approaches through the rediscovery of a synthetic "republican" theory anchored in the classical polis as well as in the "Philadelphian" system devised by the American Founders. Anyone interested in political philosophy will learn much from this rich, challenging, and genuinely brilliant work.
On a lesser plane, three other recent books dealing with war may also be mentioned; all of them have received surprisingly little attention given their merit. Frederick W. Kagan's Finding the Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy provides a crisp, comprehensive account of the development of American military policy and thinking from the aftermath of the Vietnam War through the war in Iraq. Mark Moyar's A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq demonstrates convincingly the importance of individual leadership in the success or failure of counterinsurgency operations throughout (mostly) American history. Finally, Douglas J. Feith's War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terror is far and away the best insider account (Feith was Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2001 to 2005) of the Bush Administration's prosecution of the "global war on terror" and its invasion of Iraq. Though respectful of his colleagues at senior levels of the administration (with some exceptions—CIA director George Tenet in particular), Feith gives a fair-minded (and very well documented) account of the strengths and limitations of individual bureaucratic players as well as the dysfunctionalities of the decision-making process as a whole. Feith's book has been virtually shunned by the prestige media as punishment for its cogency as well as for the author's prominent place in the now-notorious neoconservative "cabal."
Another book in the politically incorrect category that I cannot refrain from mentioning, though it strays from my lane, is Ian Plimmer's Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, The Missing Science. In this entertaining and stupefyingly documented if somewhat chaotic study, Plimmer, a distinguished Australian geologist, marshals the evidence from the entire gamut of scientific disciplines against global warming as a manmade phenomenon and smartly raps the knuckles of the cabal (no quotes this time) promoting this fraud.
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Daniel J. Mahoney
Professor of Political Science, Assumption College
The fall of 2010 saw the publication of two masterly books by the French political philosopher Pierre Manent. In my view, these are mandatory reading for all serious students of politics, philosophy, and religion who happen to read French (alas, not too long ago all cultivated people read French).
The first, Le regard politique, is an absolutely scintillating conversation with Manent in which he traces his intellectual itinerary and shares his broad reflections on contemporary intellectual and political life. In remarkably limpid, memorable prose, we learn about Manent's upbringing in a Communist family, his youthful conversion to Catholicism, and his accompanying discovery of political reason and political philosophy as a result of his encounter with the person of Raymond Aron ("an orator in the Ciceronian sense of the term...who [spoke] with authority and competence and eloquence about the public thing") and the writings of Leo Strauss ("the author with whom I have most intensely debated").
The highlight of the work is Manent's reflection on the three "poles" of human existence: politics, philosophy, and religion. Rather than arbitrarily choosing among them, Manent's work attempts to do justice to these three great articulations of human experience and the human soul. For all his indebtedness to Strauss, Manent makes clear that he does not share the Straussian preoccupation with a "philosopher" who, at least, in principle, aspires to transcend the moral and political sphere altogether. Manent provocatively highlights what he sees as an untenable tension in some currents of Straussianism between an admirable Aristotelian or Tocquevillian emphasis on seeing not differently but further than the responsible citizen and statesman—and a more problematic insistence on a conception of philosophy that aims to leave behind the human perspective altogether.
But Manent's position should not be confused with either a political or Christian critique of philosophy. He fully shares the ambition of philosophy—of reason—to understand the "natural order of things." And though agreeing with Pascal that "Christianity knows man" he freely acknowledges that Christianity has trouble doing full justice to the political nature of man. Historically, Christianity has been suspicious of that rallying of men's forces—that prideful self-assertion—which gave rise in the first place to liberty within the city. Yet the Christian church is also a city, a form of "communion," and the production of the "chose commune" (with its accompanying interrogation about the truth about man, his "essence" and "nature") is at the heart of what Manent does not hesitate to call the distinctiveness—the superiority—of Western civilization.
The distinctiveness of the West—and particularly of the great enterprise of "putting of things in common" in the "political forms" which are the city, empire, Church, and nation—is the theme of Manent's magisterial 420-page work Les métamorphoses de la cité: Essai sur la dynamique de l'Occident, which was published at the same time as Le regard politique. Manent's treatment of the "metamorphoses of the city" is also an exploration of the "question of Rome" and the "theological-political problem." The highlights of this work are its detailed and remarkably suggestive readings of Cicero and Augustine, respectively, and its incisive critique of the modern dream for a "pure humanity"—for a universalism ("we are the world")—which eschews all political or religious mediation. These two complementary works show that classical philosophy and the Christian religion properly understood stand shoulder to shoulder in resisting the chimera which is the "religion of humanity" with its conflation of democracy with empty and self-destructive forms of human self-deification.
Crossing the channel—the English Channel that is—I heartily recommend Roger Scruton's The Uses of Pessimism: And the Dangers of False Hope. This beautifully written work—it literally contains hundreds of memorable passages and formulations—deserves to be recognized as a classic of conservative, anti-utopian political philosophy. Scruton's target is an antinomianism that forgets that "institutions, laws, restraints, and moral discipline are a part of freedom and not its enemies, and liberation from such things rapidly brings freedom to an end." Scruton's discussions of modern totalitarianism, the legacy of May '68 (and the worldwide "culture of repudiation" to which it gave rise), and the illusion of the multiculturalists that one can destroy a shared public culture without consequence, amply illustrate this fundamental insight. Against unscrupulous optimists who ignore the wisdom of custom, common sense, and law, against all those who have succumbed to the pernicious falsehood that human beings are "born free," Scruton recovers the elementary insight that a rejection of utopianism is a precondition for genuine hopefulness about the human condition. Hope, properly understood, is a personal virtue that teaches "patience and sacrifice, and prepar(es) the soul for agape." Yet while roundly repudiating comprehensive or nihilistic gloom, Scruton raises some truly disturbing questions about the persistence of utopian illusions despite all the evidence that ought to have definitively refuted them. Are human beings—or at least modern intellectuals—finally impervious to evidence and experience?
Finally, every conservative (and honest liberal) will find hours of delight in Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations: A William F. Buckley Jr. Omnibus, edited by Linda Bridges and Roger Kimball, with a preface by George F. Will. The title itself is quintessentially Buckleyan. More than an impeccable political analyst, Buckley was a lively and stylish commentator on culture and policy, manners and morals. The section on "Dealing With the Communist World"(which will remind the present generation of what precisely was at stake in the great moral and historical conflict which was the Cold War) and Buckley's remarkable obituaries for friend and foe alike are alone worth the price of admission. The inspiration for this most welcome volume came from CRB editor Charles Kesler, who in remarks following Buckley's funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral in April 2008, pointed out that much of Buckley's most important and trenchant work was out of print and needed to be anthologized for future generations. We are all in Roger Kimball and Linda Bridges's debt for having the perspicacity to act on this suggestion.
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Wilfred M. McClay
SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, by Marilynne Robinson
Most readers will know Marilynne Robinson from her fine novels, notably Housekeeping and Gilead, which reflect both a keen intelligence and a profoundly Christian moral sensibility. But anyone who cares about the unique claims to knowledge of what we inadequately call "the humanities" will be well rewarded by a reading of these Terry lectures of Robinson's. She is a debunker of debunking, calling it "flawed learnedness," and goes after forms of scientism that she calls "parascience." The result is a work that is a minor masterpiece of what Peter Lawler has called "postmodernism rightly understood."
Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State, by William Voegeli
Readers of the CRB need hardly be informed about Bill Voegeli's outstanding gifts as an essayist, and this long-awaited book has proven worth the wait. One of Voegeli's many talents is an ability to ask central questions that no one is quite asking, but that, once they have been formulated, prove unforgettable. In this book, the question being posed is, at what point is the welfare state "big enough"? Why is it that the New Deal's inadequacy is always explained away by its not being radical enough, or the Obama stimulus's failure to stimulate is attributed to its being too small? And he shows, with a combination of philosophical acuity (one chapter is entitled "Liberalism's Continuing Inability to Make Sense") and mastery of empirical detail (another chapter is "Liberalism's Continuing Inability to Make Payroll") why the answer is always....as Gwen Welles sang in "Nashville," with words that could be the theme song of the liberal welfare state..."I Never Get Enough."
How the Progressives Rewrote the Constitution, by Richard A. Epstein
This book would be worth reading if only for its Preface, entitled "Why We Must Reopen Closed Debates." But there is more. Epstein believes that the robust commitment to federalism and economic liberty in the pre-New Deal constitutional order have been ignorantly discarded, and the time is long past for a second look. This compact, dense little book is a provocative beginning.
Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch, by Eric Miller
Christopher Lasch may not have been a CRB type, and was certainly no conservative. But his work was always worth reckoning with. Indeed he is one of the few major intellectual figures of late twentieth-century American whose reputation is likely to survive and grow with the passage of time. His brand of historically and psychologically informed social criticism was uncommonly prescient and remains surprisingly relevant to our current cultural dilemmas. But above all one values him as an honest seeker, which is what Eric Miller brings out so luminously. Lasch presents an interesting case of a man who started out grounded in all the incontestable verities of modern thought—Marx, Freud, the Frankfurt School, tutti quanti—but over a lifetime managed to think his way through them all, and end his days on the verge of a recovery of religious faith. But only on the verge. A poignant story, poignantly told.
I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher's Guide to Wine, by Roger Scruton
A book that discusses wine as an accompaniment to philosophy, and philosophy as an accompaniment to (and byproduct of) wine. Beyond that, a work that it is impossible to summarize, except to say that it is the sort of book from which one emerges a better, more civilized person. It offers a journey that is by turns serious and rollicking, as befits its subject, and suffused with Scruton's immensely winning combination of wit, learning, and humor.
Apples of Gold in Pictures of Silver: Honoring the Work of Leon R. Kass, edited by Yuval Levin, Thomas W. Merrill, and Adam Schulman
A perfectly wonderful book of essays on various subjects, held together by the luminous intellectual and moral presence of Kass in this circle of writers who have been influenced by him, including the three editors, as well as Kass's wife Amy, Eric Cohen, Harvey Mansfield, Gilbert Meilaender, and others. Especially valuable are two contributions by Harvey Flaumenhaft: first, an introduction on Kass's career, catnip for those who wonder about the formation of this remarkable man; and second, his fine essay on Plato, which culminates in the following words, which could be a pronouncement on the book's true subject, and which curves back toward the thrust of Marilynne Robinson's book recommended above: "The liberal modern state needs to be informed by true thoughtfulness as much as by modern liberal principles." Amen to that.