While preparing the Big Picture I did my best to keep things as accessible and brief as possible. Which means that if you’re a teacher or other leader, you probably have a few more questions. So here are the works I drew on while preparing our material. If you have any other questions, feel free to hit me up at www.inearthenvessels.com/contact.
+ WORKS THAT SHAPED THIS STUDY
+ THREE BIG QUESTIONS
+ A STORY WORTH SHARING
+ IN THE BEGINNING & THE IMAGE OF GOD
+ COVENANTS OF PROMISE & FOLLOW ME
A few weeks ago we took a look at Rod Dreher’s first book, Crunchy Cons, to better understand Dreher’s journey from a countercultural politics to a countercultural church, what he calls “The Benedict Option.” A much shorter version of this review appeared in the December 2017 issue of The Christian Chronicle. For more on The BenOp and what it means to be the church, check out our thread on The Body of Christ.
Post-modernity. Post-Christianity. Post-truth. How should the church respond?
That’s the question Rod Dreher explores in his latest book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Dreher is currently a senior editor and blogger for The American Conservative, and has been writing off and on about “The BenOp” for over a decade.
His inspiration comes from the closing paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s work, After Virtue. There, MacIntyre writes:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict. (ch. 18; unless otherwise noted, all emphases added)
In his first book, Crunchy Cons, Dreher discussed what he saw as the chief failure of modern conservatism: a consumerism that threatens our health, our homes, and our habitats. But as Dreher muses in his final chapter, maybe MacIntyre’s right. Maybe politics just isn’t what we’ve made it. Maybe we’ve been asking the wrong questions. Maybe it’s not enough to change Washington.
So while Crunchy Cons moves steadily from politics to culture to religion, The Benedict Option moves in the opposite direction, from religion to culture to politics. Instead of explaining why society needs Christianity (apologia) or proclaiming the truth of Christianity (kerygma), Dreher shows what classic Christianity looks like when lived confidently (ekklesia). He continues:
I have written The Benedict Option to wake up the church and to encourage it to act to strengthen itself, while there is still time. If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and in practice. We are going to have to learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West. We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs. (Introduction, emphasis in original)
The good news is that we’ve been here before. Joseph saw it, as did Daniel, Esther, and Peter. And as Dreher points out, so did Benedict. After Rome fell in the fifth century, Benedict of Nursia renounced the pride of politics for the beauty of holiness. He recognized he couldn’t save the city from within its ruined walls, so he headed for the hills. And remarkably—and in hindsight—that’s when things started to look up:
Benedict’s example gives us hope today, because it reveals what a small cohort of believers who respond creatively to the challenges of their own time and place can accomplish by channeling the grace that flows through them from their radical openness to God, and embodying that grace in a distinct way of life. … This is not just about our own survival. If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training—just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people. We cannot give the world what we do not have. (ch. 1)
So what does the BenOp actually look like? Although The Benedict Option provides several good examples, its core principles are best stated in the afterword to the paperback edition of Crunchy Cons. There Dreher outlines what he calls “a Benedictine-inspired rule adapted for modern countercultural living.” Here it is in full:
We are a school for the service of God. Everything we do, alone or together, can only be done through him and for him. Our purpose is to help each other live out the virtues in a community bound by faith in God, love of neighbor, and commitment to the principles in this Rule.
The hardest part of this modern BenOp is that these changes have to start with us. Some might not seem that radical, but others strike closer to our modern roots, presenting challenges even for the faithful. In short, if we are to point others to the Truth, we can’t merely talk about it, we have to show them the Way, show them the Life—and that means walking it ourselves (John 14:1-6). Dreher again:
Put more plainly, unbelievers today who cannot make sense of the Gospel’s propositions may yet have a life-changing wordless encounter with the Gospel through Christian art or works of Christian love that pull them outside themselves and confront them with the reality of Christ.
The same is true for the church today. There are parts of the BenOp that I still can’t endorse and many others that I’m still working on, but Dreher’s chief point remains: We are going to have to be the body of Christ, embodying His grace in a distinct way of life, confronting others with His own divine reality. Or in Dreher's own words, “If you ask me, it’s time that we became our own Benedicts” (Crunchy Cons, ch. 8).
Benedict is a good model, but in Christ we have an even better one; because this is what Jesus did (John 1:14, 17), and this is what He calls us to do. As John wrote, “By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world” (1 John 4:17 ESV). The world comes to see the resurrected and ascended Christ only in Christ’s own confident and loving people, the church.
But to be for the world, we cannot be of the world. We have to be the church; we have to be more like Christ.
Last week, on Facebook, I promised an extended review of Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, based on a much shorter version that appeared in the December 2017 issue of The Christian Chronicle. But before we get to that, it may help to understand how Dreher worked his way there, and for that we have to start with his first book, Crunchy Cons. For more on The BenOp and what it means to be the church, check out our thread on The Body of Christ.
As a Christian, I’ve never really felt at home politically. Sure, I’ve had my periods of partisanship, but in many ways I have just as many differences with conservatives as I have with their liberal counterparts. So I had to chuckle when I was walking through an airport one day and saw the hardback edition of Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher (2006). On the cover (above left) there was this rusty VW minibus with a GOP pachyderm painted on the front and a kayak strapped to the top, driven by a suited man flashing a peace sign. And check out that subtitle! But I gave it a pass. I’m not even sure I opened it. Now, it makes it into my top 5.
Thankfully, something about the book popped back into my mind while I was looking for some light reading in the summer of 2012. I wanted something thoughtful, generally conservative, but also more than just politics as usual. So I downloaded a sample of the extended paperback edition (2010) in iBooks, which also carried a new subtitle: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots. The sample was short, but effective—I was hooked. For example, in the new Preface I came across the following:
Though unabashedly rooted in the rich and fertile conservative tradition, Crunchy Cons seeks to go beyond the shopworn ideological categories of left and right. … It’s time we stopped asking what’s conservative and what’s liberal. Maybe instead we should create a new politics by asking: What’s good? What’s true? What’s beautiful? What’s authentically human?”
Having already read a bit of Aristotle, John Adams, and Russell Kirk, I could already see I was in for a treat. But the real selling point came next, in what Dreher called “A Crunchy-Con Manifesto.” See for yourself:
Culture. Character. Wisdom. That’s where a Crunchy Con finds her WHY. But it’s not that Dreher says anything new. Instead, his genius lies primarily in the narrative approach he takes to his work, describing the HOW of a countercultural conservatism. Dreher simply tells the stories of people “putting truth and beauty first in their lives,” trying to “cobble together a practical, commonsense, and fruitful way to live amid the empty consumerist prosperity of what Henry Miller called ‘the air-conditioned nightmare’” (ch. 1). A good yarn reflects this beauty better than a good argument.
Dreher and I already shared certain loves: good books, Craftsman bungalows, Distributism, and classic Christianity. But in other ways, I hadn’t realized how deeply I too had been shaped by my consumerism. So I’m still working on these: putting down roots, caring for creation, and avoiding “refined flour, white sugar … processed foods … and … vegetable oil” (Crunchy Cons, ch. 3).
But what does all that have to do with politics? Well, quite a bit, actually. At its heart, politics isn’t about things; it’s about people, the polis (city): your family, friends, and neighbors. But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t have any views on issues of public or national concern. It simply means that your expectations for political involvement have changed; you’re playing by a different set of rules. So in his final chapter, Dreher tells us WHAT a “crunchy-con political agenda might look like”:
Reading that list is probably as shocking to you as it was to me five years ago. But the longer I’ve looked at it, picked it apart, studied it, and put it back together again, I’d probably only change a word or two. Where has this depth of conservatism gone? And how could we get it back again? For me, Dreher painted a picture of this politics more clear, succinct, and humorous than I had ever seen—before or since.
By putting it all on paper, Dreher had hoped to inform conservative politics for the 2008 election. He sought to tell a different story than the dominant narrative provided by either party, or in the media. As he said in his opening chapter, “the conservative folks you’ll meet in the pages ahead will open your eyes, and in them you’ll see a sensibility marked by what G. K. Chesterton praised as ‘sanity, humor and charity,’ but also a recognition that American life is in crisis.” But the crisis only deepened. 2008 was a game changer for everyone, with a new recession and a new president, and by 2010 a new political subculture had emerged in response, the Tea Party.
That year Dreher wrote a new afterword for the paperback edition, reflecting on what had been achieved in the four years since Crunchy Cons had been published. But he was also more certain than ever that partisan politics was no longer the solution; something much deeper and more radical would be required:
The original subtitle of this book … promised ideas that might save the Republican Party. But now I doubt it’s worth saving in its present form. … This suggests that the crunchy cons should embrace the practice of what Vaclav Havel called “anti-political politics”—choosing to combat the cynicism and emptiness of formal politics by living virtuously and generously in one’s own community.
Politics simply wasn’t going to cut it. Crunchy Cons needed to forge another way of “living into the truth” (to borrow again from Havel), an alternative way of living out our “sanity, humor and charity.” And for that, Dreher looked to Benedict.
Ayn Rand Really, Really Hated C.S. Lewis *Explicit*
Matthew Schmitz, First Things
C.S. Lewis: Love is an Undying Fire
Bobby Valentine, Stoned-Campbell Disciple
Fighting 'Chronological Snobbery' with C.S. Lewis
Michael Reeves, Crossway
C.S. Lewis Talks to a Dog About Lust
Trevin Wax, The Gospel Coalition
Tolkien & the Great Tale
Adam Schwartz, The University Bookman
Tolkien's Lay of Aotrou & Itroun to be Republished
Alison Flood, The Guardian
Howard Shore & the Music of Middle-earth
From The Imaginative Conservative
Over the past few weeks I’ve shared a bit about my favorite books, what reading has taught me, and a short-list of truly “great” writers. But as I mentioned a few weeks ago, these are all merely glimpses of what is truly good in our world and beyond. So this week I want to share with you some of my own areas of interest and how I plan to delve deeper into them.
You can organize my interests (very loosely!) under three headings: Ethics, Epics, and the Ekklésia (or Church). In fleshing out how I wanted to approach these subjects, some of these books simply fell into my lap, either as gifts from family and friends, or as free or discounted eBooks available from their publishers. But most of the fifty-two works below were pointed out to me by a handful of books I read the last few years (or even months!):
~ After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre
~ Common Prayer by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove & Enuma Okoro
~ The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher
~ Early Christians Speak, Vol. 1 by Everett Ferguson
~ The Language of God by Francis Collins
After Virtue is preeminent on the list for three reasons. First, reading it last year, MacIntyre reminded me just how much I still have to learn; so many of the works listed under ethics are due to his influence. But he is also one of the reasons why I want to immerse myself in epic poetry. Much like Kirk, MacIntyre points out how ancient epics informed the virtues of heroic societies, the subject and title of his tenth chapter. So while many of the epics I’ve chosen were influenced by Lewis (That Hideous Strength) and Tolkien (The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún, The Fall of Arthur, and The Story of Kullervo), MacIntyre has given me new reasons to read in that direction. Finally, MacIntyre is also the inspiration for Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, which means that there’s not really an area I’m interested in that he hasn’t already thought and written about extensively.
The next two on the list really go hand-in-hand. I used Common Prayer for my daily devotionals in 2016, and I read though The Benedict Option this year in the first week after its release. Both demonstrate the need for the modern church to reclaim something she has lost through the ages in order to transcend our politics of lust and greed. But there are also several differences between the two perspectives, CP approaching things from the Left and The BenOp from the Right (see here and here). And yet there were four books recommended by both CP and The BenOp, which seem to merit my attention: The Rule of St. Benedict; Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon; and Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community by Wendell Berry.
But if I had to sum up the problems with both CP and The BenOp, it would be that they assume the wrong frame of reference for their diagnosis and prescriptions. Both try to recover the wisdom of the early church, but neither of them goes far enough back (only the fifth or sixth century). And that’s where Everett Ferguson comes in with Early Christians Speak. Ferguson combines representative quotes from the first three centuries of the church, organizes them by topic, and then discusses what this teaches us about being the church then and now. So far I’ve read about half of his monographs, and am hoping they eventually digitize his several edited works. He has also pointed me back to many other Restoration Movement writers, many of which are seen below.
Of these five works, though, the one that surprises me the most is still The Language of God. Francis Collins served previously as Director of the Human Genome Project and is currently the Director of the National Institutes of Health. He’s also a committed believer who has tried for over a decade to reduce the friction between the fields of religion and science. The connection between him and some of the works below is probably fairly obvious, like the last three under ethics (although ethics is actually where I disagree with him most). But Collins also draws extensively on Lewis (whom he calls his “familiar Oxford adviser”), as well as Augustine, both of whom appear below.
To illustrate how you can weave the Great Books and other good books into a course of reading, I’ve once again numbered the authors recommended in Mortimer Adler’s classic, How to Read a Book. Although each list is roughly chronological, I don’t necessarily plan on reading them that way. Books I plan on re-reading along the way have been marked with an asterisk (*).
10. The Republic of Plato, trans and ed. Allan Bloom
Plato’s Theory of Education by R.C. Lodge
11. Metaphysics, Rhetoric*, Poetics*, The Constitution of Athens, and Fragments, all attributed to Aristotle
Augustine on the Christian Life by Gerald Bray
32. City of God by Augustine
The Allegory of Love, Mere Christianity*, The Four Loves*, The Discarded Image, The Weight of Glory, Christian Reflections, Poems, and Present Concerns by C.S. Lewis
Dependent Rational Animals by Alasdair MacIntyre
Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community by Wendell Berry
Embracing Creation by John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine & Mark Wilson
The Faithful Creator by Ron Highfield
Reconciling the Bible and Science by Kirk Blackard & Lynn Mitchell
Beowulf*, trans. Seamus Heaney (alongside Tolkien’s commentary)
33. The Song of Roland
35. The Story of Burnt Njal
The Saga of the Volsungs
The Prose (or Elder) Edda
The Poetic Edda
The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún* by J.R.R. Tolkien
The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth
Kalevala, ed. Elias Lönnrot
Early Irish Myths and Sagas by Jeffrey Gantz
Beren and Lúthien by J.R.R. Tolkien (ed. Christopher Tolkien, forthcoming June 2017)
The Lord of the Rings* by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Inheriting Wisdom, The Early Church and Today (Vol. 2), The Early Church at Work and Worship (Vols. 2 & 3), and Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses by Everett Ferguson
The Rule of St. Benedict
Life Together and Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon
Reviving the Ancient Faith and Reclaiming a Heritage by Richard T. Hughes
The Cruciform Church by C. Leonard Allen
The Crux of the Matter and Will the Cycle Be Unbroken, by Douglas A. Foster et al.
Why They Left by Flavil R. Yeakley
Why We Stayed, ed. Benjamin J. Williams
Last week we discussed how reading the Great Books fosters the growth of “the moral imagination.” This week, we take a look at what I’ve come to call a glance at the Great Books, a list of forty-eight great authors and their best known works.
The authors and works listed below are those recommended by all three of the reading lists I consulted—Adler’s How to Read a Book, Bloom’s The Western Canon, and Fadiman and Major’s The New Lifetime Reading Plan--organized chronologically and numbered by Adler. For the sake of convenience, I’ve divided these works into the conventional categories of Fiction and Nonfiction. Some of these writers belong in both categories, but to avoid redundancies I have included each author only on the list where I felt most readers would look for them.
We spoke last week mainly about Nonfiction: philosophy, the natural sciences, foreign languages, and civics. But this week I’d like to preface the list with some brief thoughts on Fiction. The list starts with Fiction for two reasons. On one hand, this corresponds closely with most people’s actual reading experience. As children we (hopefully!) began reading fiction for fun, and then later on shifted to reading for learning. But in an even deeper way Fiction stands first because, as Russell Kirk once said, “Fiction is truer than fact.” As he continues:
I mean that in great fiction we obtain the distilled wisdom of men of genius, understandings of human nature which we could attain—if at all—unaided by books, only at the end of life, after numberless painful experiences. I began to read Sir Walter Scott when I was twelve or thirteen; and I think I learnt from the Waverley novels, and from Shakespeare, more of the varieties of character than ever I have got since from the manuals of psychology.
And Fiction’s edifying role is not limited to the social sciences. “In certain ways, the great novel and the great poem can teach more of norms than can philosophy and theology.” Think for a moment of the Bible: God did not reveal himself to mankind merely through lengthy discourses (although there is much of that, about 24 of the 66 canonical books) but also in poetry (17 books) and narrative (25 books). In other words, the One who made us and knows us best reveals himself in a way that is not only good and true, but beautiful (Ecc 12:10). In the same way, the Great Books’ blend of poetry, prose, and discourse reflects the image of the Creator and His creation. So while a well-rounded education will certainly include some good, no-nonsense discourse, “miscellaneous browsing in the realm of fiction rarely does mischief,” and often does far more.
So as you take a glance at these great books, remember not to hold them as an end-all-be-all, but as a glimpse of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Instead, find something that interests you and dig in, let it shape how you see the world around you, and let it launch you onto other literary endeavors (whether those works made the list or not!)
Lord willing, next week we’ll continue with quick looks at some of my own areas of interest: ethics, epics, and the Christian ekklesia.
1. The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
3. The Oresteia by Aeschylus
4. The Theban Plays by Sophocles
6. The Baccae, Hippolytus, and Medea by Euripides
9. The Birds and The Clouds by Aristophanes
18. The Aeneid by Virgil
37. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
38. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
45. Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais
49. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
52. The Poetry and Plays of William Shakespeare
58. Areopagitica, Paradise Lost, and the Sonnets of John Milton
67. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
68. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
78. Tristam Shandy by Laurence Sterne
86. Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
89. The Poems of William Wordsworth
90. Biographia Literaria, Kubla Khan, and Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
91. Pride and Prejudice and Emma by Jane Austen
93. The Red and the Black by Stendhal
99. Pére Goriot and Eugenie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac
101. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
105. The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, and Hard Times by Charles Dickens
109. Middlemarch by George Eliot
110. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
111. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
112. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
113. Hedda Gabler by Henrick Ibsen
114. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
115. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
117. The Ambassadors by Henry James
5. The Histories by Herodotus
7. History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
10. The Dialogues of Plato
11. The Nicomachean Ethics and Poetics by Aristotle
17. On the Nature of Things by Lucretius
32. Confessions by Augustine
40. The Prince by Niccoló Machiavelli
47. The Essays of Michel de Montaigne
56. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
60. The Pensées of Blaise Pascal
61. The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison (which I plan to read chronologically alongside the Anti-Federalist Papers)
73. Candide and Letters on the English by Voltaire
82. The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by James Boswell
103. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
107. Civil Disobedience and Walden by Henry David Thoreau
116. Pragmatism by William James
118. Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Wilhelm Neitzsche
~ Adler, Mortimer J. & Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. New York: Touchstone, 1972. Print.
~ Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Riverhead, 1994. Print.
~ Fadiman, Clifton & John S. Major. The New Lifetime Reading Plan. 4th Ed. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999. Print.
~ Kirk, Russell. “The Moral Imagination.” The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. Web. 12 Apr. 2015.
Majoring in the humanities was probably the best academic decision I ever made. I have always enjoyed reading, but what I soon found was that reading great books well doesn’t just entertain us or teach us useful facts. It helps us rely less on ourselves—with all of our faults and blind spots—by listening to and engaging the minds of others through their written works.
In other words, reading the great books helps realign ourselves with the wisdom of the ages, rather than the spirit of the age. As Russell Kirk often argued, what modern society requires is to reclaim “the moral imagination”—“that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events,” and “aspires to … right order in the soul and … the commonwealth.” And, “To the unalterable in human existence, humane letters are a great guide.”
Of course, true knowledge and true wisdom, comes only from above (Jam 3:17-18) and is revealed fully in Christ (Col 2:13) and in his word (1Co 2:6-16). But to grasp the difference between the wisdom of Man and the wisdom of God, it helps to understand something of them both. Ancient wisdom, then, serves as a good introduction into what God has revealed more explicitly in his word (which is just one reason why preachers should read good literature).
It was Mortimer Adler who first introduced me to the skills required to read well. One of the assigned readings in my first humanities course was his 1972 classic, How to Read a Book. In its pages Adler not only tells you how to do this well, he also gathers the experience of the ages in his list of 137 Great Writers and their greatest works.
But as Adler would also warn us, no list is the “end all, be all” of any education. Instead, I am reminded of the elegy offered by Fadiman and Major in The New Lifetime Reading Plan. By reading great books well, we begin “to fill our minds, slowly, gradually, under no compulsion, with what some of the greatest writers have thought, felt, and imagined” (xix). Of course, even this is merely a beginning:
Even after we have shared these thoughts, feelings, and images, we will still have much to learn: We all die uneducated. But at least we will not feel quite so lost, so bewildered. We will have disenthralled ourselves from the merely contemporary. We will understand something—not much, but something—of our position in space and time. We will know how we have emerged from our long human history. . . . Just as important, we will have acquired models of high thought and feeling. (Fadiman & Major xix-xx)
The question then becomes, Which list to use? I have some experience with three, but each is quite different from the others, often expressing the interests and views of its compiler. So Adler’s list reflects his extensive background in philosophy and Western civilization, and essentially stops with what had been recognized as ‘great’ by 1972. Clifton and Fadiman, Harold Bloom and Leland Ryken help immensely by adding many non-Western or newer works, but they are lighter on nonfiction than Adler’s (in fact, Ryken only includes two!).
Not surprisingly, however, some books make it onto three or even all four lists. And though I don’t think we should make too much of this (building a canon within the canon), these commonly-received works give us a good starting point for our literary endeavors. And though the resulting list is much shorter than the one thousand works recommended when these three lists are compiled, it still represents a substantive goal: fifty-three authors and over one hundred individual works.
Next week, Lord willing, we’ll see what the resulting list looks like. Until then, check out Russell Kirk’s lecture, “The Moral Imagination,” which is still one of the best introductions to the ethical function of literature I’ve ever read. For the even braver soul, read slowly through Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, especially chapter 10, “The Virtues of Heroic Societies.”
Current as of July 3, 2020
I fell in love with books before I could even read them. Some of my earliest and best memories are the times I spent in Granny’s lap with Dr. Seuss. And though the good doctor and I don’t get together much these days (our children prefer dragons, Jedi, and The Jesus Storybook Bible), my affection for books has only grown. So after an ill-fated semester as a student in Ancient and Classical History, I decided to ‘specialize’ (if it can be called that) in the humane letters. And having wrapped up another phase of my academic career, I’m glad to be returning to what I know best: the Good Book and the great books.
In previous updates to this list, I included just about everything—if I had read it, it was here. However, I decided to clean house, eliminating about 70 works in the process. To be retained a work had to be good (reading me as I read it), true (both informative and imaginative), and beautiful (a joy to read). And though there are still some hard reads that made the cut, each will hopefully (to paraphrase Kirk) stimulate your heart and mind for the proper study of the human condition, and point you further into “the deep things of God” (1Co 2:10).
So here are the books I’ve read and reread for entertainment and edification. And in case you’re looking for an even shorter list to start with, I’ve marked my top five with an asterisk (*).
Life Together Under the Word
The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher
The Big Story by Justin Buzzard
Churches in the Shape of Scripture by Dan Chambers
Common Prayer, eds. Shane Clairborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove & Enuma Okoro
The Confessions by Augustine
The Cruciform Church by C. Leonard Allen
Early Christians Speak (esp. Vol. 1) by Everett Ferguson
*The ESV Study Bible, ed. Lane T. Dennis & Wayne Grudem
Follow Me: A Call to True Discipleship by Kevin W. Rhodes
The Gospel: How the Church Shares the Beauty of Christ by Roy Ortlund
A Letter to Marcellinus (On the Interpretation of the Psalms) by Athanasius
*Life Together and Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Preface to The New King James Version
Radical Restoration by F. LaGard Smith
Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon
Simple Church by Thom Rainer & Eric Geiger
Why Trust the Bible? by Greg Gilbert
Stories & the Moral Imagination
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Aeneid by Virgil
Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth
The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer
*The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún by J.R.R. Tolkien
“The Moral Imagination” by Russell Kirk
The Oresteia by Aeschylus
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Tales of Beedle the Bard, eds. Hermione Granger & Albus Dumbledore
The Theban Plays by Sophocles
Creation & the Wonders of Nature
The Classic Hundred Poems, ed. William Harmon
Dependent Rational Animals by Alasdair MacIntyre
Early Christian Readings of Genesis One by Craig D. Allert
Embracing Creation by John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine & Mark Wilson
Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, ed. J.B. Stump
Galileo’s Commandment: 2,500 Years of Great Science Writing, ed. Edmund Blair Bolles
Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary and Theological Commentary by C. John Collins
Jesus, Beginnings, and Science by David & Kate Vosburg
The Language of God by Francis Collins
“Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany” by Galileo Galilei
*Surprised by Meaning by Alister McGrath
Wisdom & the Commonwealth
*The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis
After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre
“Armistice Day Address” by General Omar N. Bradley
Counter Culture by David Platt
Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher
Egypt, Greece and Rome by Charles Freeman
God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson
Grand New Party by Ross Douthat & Reihan Salam
How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill
How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman
”Letter From a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke
The Republic by Plato
Start with Why by Simon Sinek
Viking Economics by George Lakey
“Washington’s Farewell Address,” with Alexander Hamilton
Among the great literary works of the Renaissance, the King James Bible stands as the most beautiful, memorable, and widely read, even today. The original impetus for the translation, however, developed rather gradually. James had recently assumed the English throne and sought to bring peace to a deeply divided country. Though there was certainly a political dimension to these schisms, it was religion that formed their root. The actions of James’ distant predecessor, Henry VIII, created an inherent tension between (1) loyalty to the crown and (2) fidelity to the spiritual traditions of the church fathers, and this tension was further exacerbated by (3) a more thoroughgoing group, whom we know as the Puritans. To facilitate reconciliation, James hosted what is now known as the Hampton Court Conference (1604). Here, “Puritan leader John Reynolds proposed a new English translation of the Bible, and James, hostile as he was to the Puritans, seized upon the suggestion,” wishing to establish peace on his own terms (Ryken 50).
But if tranquility was the motivating factor behind the translation, humility was the guiding force of the work itself. Though the Translators certainly had their share of doctrinal disagreements, they were united in a common conviction that the words with which they worked were not their own, but were of divine origin; they were merely God’s secretaries, scribes of the living oracles. “Secretaryship is one of the great shaping forces behind the King James Bible. There is no authorship involved here. Authorship is egotistical, an assumption that you might have something new worth saying. You don’t” (Nicolson 184).
This did not, however, simplify their task. The theological discussions of the day also led to varying views on the proper method of translating the Bible into English. The Translators “were heir to [a] double and in some ways contradictory tradition” (Nicolson 185). On one hand, there was this “Calvinistic secretarial strictness,” and on the other, the secular, Ciceronian approach that Luther adopted, which required the translator to “absorb” the meaning of the text and then “reproduce something like it in his own language” (Nicolson 184). Yet peace and reconciliation was still the ultimate goal of the work. “If it was to play its role as the national irenicon, it had to bridge the categories of rich and clear” (Nicolson 195).
The Translators resolved this tension by choosing both over either. In the words of Ryken, they sought “an essentially literal translation,” choosing an English equivalent for each word in the original, italicizing words added to the text for clarity, and even preferring the word order of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic over that of their own English (Ryken 50).
Yet they also sought to maintain the mystery of Holy Writ, choosing variety over consistency in their vocabulary and thereby multiplying “the number of English words used for a given Hebrew or Greek word” (Ryken 50). The effect of the finished product (1611) is striking. In the hands of these men, the words of God became “more accurate,” “simple, accessible, conceptually rich,” and “full of potent and resonant meanings” (Nicolson 153, 193). They combined “simplicity and majesty” with a sense of rhythm and affective power that has made the King James Bible the English translation of Milton, Coleridge, and Wordsworth; Lincoln, Kennedy, and King (Ryken 51; Nicolson 237-238).
Over the last 150 years, the grip of the King James Bible on the Anglo-American imagination has been somewhat weakened due to criticisms of its antiquated diction, textual basis, and knowledge of the languages (see Ryken 51). And yet the work of the Translators endures as “the touchstone, the national book, the formative mental structure for all English-speaking people” (Nicolson 236). It is because of this that the most successful attempts to render the Scriptures into accurate, beautiful, and clear English have been produced in the King James tradition: the English Revised Version (1885), the American Standard Version (1901), the Revised Standard Version (1952, 1971), the New American Standard Bible (1971, 1995), the New King James Version (1982), and the English Standard Version (initially in 2001, with the permanent text just finalized in 2016; for more information on these translations, see Marlowe). Now nearly four hundred years old, the King James tradition stands as strong as it did in the seventeenth century—stirring our imagination, sinking into our ears, and saving our souls (see Luke 9:44; Jam 1:21).
Though the doctrine of Purgatory has far more to do with the traditions of men than anything stated in the word of God, classic depictions of such a place often provide striking reminders of the spiritual and eternal consequences of sin. So, for example, in Canto XVII of Dante’s Purgatorio, Virgil explains to Dante that the root of all sin is a perverted love that has become twisted in three ways: loving what is bad, too little love for what is good, or too much love for the temporal goods of this life (see Mark 12:28-31; 1Jo 2:15-17). And for this reason, the first three sins found in Dante’s Purgatory (pride, envy, and wrath) might be best interpreted as aspects of the first sort of love-led-astray—of man loving what is bad (Purgatorio XVII.112-114).
Pride is the first of these sins, both in Dante’s mind as well as in the mind of the sinner, an assertion supported by the place of humility in Christ’s first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mat 5:3 ESV; see Purgatorio XII.109-111). One who is proud has an undue regard for himself as superior to others. In his mind he is one of the “few;” set apart from the common, vulgar, and profane. In the words of Virgil, “some think they see their own hope to advance / tied to their neighbor’s fall, and thus they long / to see him cast down from his eminence” (XVII.115-117). For this sin in life, Dante witnesses the proud dead crawling around the Mount of Purgatory under slabs of rock whose size is commensurate with the pride its bearer had in life (Cantos X-XII).
Similar to pride is the sin of envy. Just as the proud view others as less worthy than themselves, the envious see as their own what rightfully belongs to others. As Virgil reminds our poet, “some fear their power, preferment, honor, fame / will suffer by another’s rise, and thus, / irked by his good, desire his ruin and shame” (XVII.118-120). In other words, the envious forget the grace of God they have themselves received, judging the worth of another’s servant rather than reflecting divine mercy in their own lives. But as Jesus said, this is exactly backward; it it is the merciful who in turn receive mercy from above: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Mat 5:7; see Purgatorio XV.37-39). Because of this willful blindness to the interests of others, the envious sit on the second cornice of Purgatory along the face of the cliff, huddled together, with their eyelids sewn tight by wire (Cantos XIII-XV).
Wrath is the culmination and sometimes-violent assertion of this lack of love. If I am better than everyone else and more deserving than they of the things they possess, why shouldn’t I be angry? Virgil reminds Dante of this self-delusion: “and some at the least injury catch fire / and are consumed by thoughts of vengeance; thus, / their neighbor’s harm becomes their chief desire” (Purgatorio XVII.121-123). Wrath, therefore, is the primary mover of quarrels, fighting and violence (Jam 4:1-3), a fact depicted in the punishment of the wrathful. As Dante begins Canto XVI, he has stepped into a cloud of smoke like none he has ever seen – at night, under a cloud, or even in Hell itself – “nor one whose texture rasped my senses so, / as did the smoke that wrapped us in that place” (lines 1-6; see also Canto XVII). At least here, however, they are finally speaking with one voice, reciting the words of the Lord: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Mat 5:9; quoted in Canto XVII.67-69).
The apostle Paul once wrote of love’s many virtues: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1Co 13:4-7). Those undergoing the crucible of Dante’s Purgatory, however, reflect the exact opposite of this love: loving what is bad, having too little love for what is good, or having too much love for the temporal goods of earthly existence. And as Virgil reminds Dante on the fourth cornice: “Such threefold love those just below us here / purge from their souls” (Purgatorio XVII.124-125).
But we have been shown “a still more excellent way”: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1Co 12:31; 13:13).
The waters of this life are unsteady, shifting, tumultuous; they provide no sure footing, no solid ground on which to stand (compare John’s use of “sea” and “waters” throughout the book of Revelation). The description is therefore less about the Wanderer’s mode of transportation, and more about his physical isolation and his unsettled emotions (James 5:1-8). Later, the poet reiterates this same sense of solitude, once more drawing on the image of the sea:
Sorrow is renewed
Like the waves of the sea, which fall here and rise there, and leave us helpless and alone, the memories of friends swim away and sink into the depths of our mind.
Darkness is also mentioned frequently by the poet, not only in its literal sense but also to reveal the quality and depth of the sailor’s despair. In the third stanza, the Wanderer states that, “Often I had alone / to speak of my trouble / each morning before dawn” (8-9a). Before the sun brightens the eastern skies, he is awake and reflecting on his troubles (compare Psalm 63:1, 6). Darkness is also used to describe the root of his sorrow: the loss of his earthly lord, “Since long ago / I hid my lord / in the darkness of the earth” (22-23a). His longing therefore points back to better days, and forward to the common fate of all mankind:
Indeed I cannot think
When he looks around him, he sees why the wise have so long “pondered deeply / on this dark life” and how the “wise in spirit, / remembered often from afar / many conflicts” (89-91a). The world, and his life in it, is a dark one, devoid of the happiness he once enjoyed with his master. Indeed, “All the joy has died” (36b; see Ecclesiastes 2:12-17)!
Time, and especially the poet’s conception of fate, is the final aspect of setting of which we will take note. Note the sense of helplessness and despair in his words, reflected once more in the natural world:
Now there stands in the trace
Brotherhood, refuge, boldness, and strength may spur us on for a moment, but we can never control “the turn of events” that inhere this life. Like Solomon before him the sailor cries out, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). And therefore fate “changes / the world under the heavens” and reminds us of life’s fleeting vapor. Truly, “The weary spirit cannot / withstand fate, / nor does a rough or sorrowful mind / perform anything helpful” (15-16; see James 1:9-11; 4:13-16).
In his sojourning, the Wanderer discovers that no matter where he now finds himself, companionship, strength, and stability are but fleeting pleasures of his temporal existence; earthly emotions the poet paints through the setting of the work itself. Neither despair nor heroics, however, is the solution. Instead he seeks a spiritual solace, knowing the Only One to which this world answers. For, “It is better for the one that seeks mercy, / consolation from the Father in the heavens, / where, for us, all permanence rests” (114b-115; see James 1:16-17; Psalm 51).
The loss of a child is the most difficult experience any parent can suffer. Whatever the cause, no parent should have to mourn their own child. The question we often struggle with, then, is Why? Why him? Why me? Why, God? Six hundred years ago, one English father recounted his own struggle in perhaps the only way he knew: in meter. The Pearl is therefore a poem about the very real questions one father asked when confronted with the loss of his little girl.
In his grief, he quite naturally wondered what kind of sick justice is served by her death. Why should “that pearl, mine own, without a spot” be thus paid “the wages of sin” in death (line 12; Rom 6:23)? In sorrow, he turns his anger toward the very dirt packed within her grave: “O mould! Thou marrest a lovely thing” (23). In life, his daughter was a precious pearl unstained by sin, yet the Grave had robbed her of her beauty, sullying her glaze with the filth of a loamy burial.
Yet as he slips into a sorrowful sleep at her grave, the Pearl herself comes in a dream to calm her father’s doubts, well aware of what has become of her since her departure. She exhorts him to forsake the fleeting comfort of lament, and instead to behold the bliss in which she now finds herself (340). But rather than comfort, his grief gives way to scoffing. Just as he had strained at the injustice of his loss, he struggles even more with his daughter’s exaltation as the bride of Christ. So many before her had lived so much longer, and suffered so much more; what was her faithfulness compared to theirs (409-420)? The maiden, however, replies that she has merely inherited the promise given to every faithful child of God: “That each who may thereto obtain / Of all the realm is queen or king” (446-447; see Rom 8:16-17, 2Ti 2:12).
To illustrate the veracity of her claim, she then recounts the parable spoken by Jesus himself, in which he compares the kingdom of Heaven to a master and his laborers (lines 493-575; see Mat 20:1-16). One morning, the master goes and hires workers from those standing idle in the agora and returns at times throughout the day to hire additional hands. But at dusk, when the workers are each paid a denarius for their labor, those who had worked longer are outraged. Their master’s response, however, quickly quiets their grumblings: “am I not allowed in gift / To dispose of mine as I please to do? / Or your eye to evil, maybe, you lift, / For I none betray and I am true?” (565-568). Christ is therefore just, and the Pearl has received her due.
But as she also knows there is yet a deeper justice that illuminates her father’s sorrow. He is not the first to have lost an innocent child, nor will he be the last. Thus, the story he must understand is not his own, but that of another Father:
Of Jerusalem my tale doth tell,
The Pearl thus reminds her father of God’s own great loss, one neither deserved nor desired, where God’s own “Sorrow and love flow mingled down.” God would not return the Pearl to her father’s embrace, but he would stand with her father in the pain, and greet him with open arms in the hereafter. Because like her, he would be saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus (Acts 15:11; see 2Sa 12:15-23).
Many things have changed in the world since the Pearl, but our world is still imperfect, striving still in the throes of redemption through him who died to save it (John 3:16; Rom 8:19-25; Col 1:15-17). A world where parents mourn their children, and where we’re still asking, Why?. And yet as the poet reminds us, God provides for us even in our suffering—looking back to the blood of the cross and looking forward to the world to come. For what Paul knew by faith, the poet’s Pearl knew by sight (2Co 5:7). He therefore closes, giving his pain to God and his peace to us. Because Justice had indeed come, and his name was Jesus:
To please that Prince, or pardon shown,
For many readers, talk of a “Hellenistic Age” conjures up the ideal of a universal Greek culture overlaid on conquered peoples throughout the three centuries before Christ. While most historians know this to be false, they usually present the period either as a mere afterthought to the glory of classical Greece (at best) or as Greece’s second Dark Age (at worst).
Neither view, however, tells the whole story, a problem Graham Shipley seeks to resolve in his book, The Greek World After Alexander 323-30 B.C. While recognizing “the problems associated with the name ‘hellenistic’,” he employs the term as “a convenient and clear [chronological] label for the period beginning with [the death of] Alexander . . . in 323 BC” and ending with the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC (Shipley 1). While both of the preceding views treat the period as one of considerable change (a point that the author himself readily concedes) Shipley believes that such changes should be viewed as “innovations in discourses conducted at an elite level of society” rather than fundamental changes in “popular culture,” the latter of which reflects a “far greater . . . degree of continuity” (1, xiii).
For literary sources, Shipley relies primarily on fragments, writings about Alexander, historians contemporary to the period, and other writings with varying levels of direct historical material. He supplements these with a number of other sources including papyri, inscriptions, coins, and other archaeological findings. Though he spends over thirty pages discussing such evidence, Shipley’s point is clear: “This rapid review of the range of evidence will, I hope, have convinced the reader that, far from being the inferior historical period for which it has often been taken, the period after Alexander the Great is not only rich in evidence but poses crucial questions of historical interpretation which any society that calls itself civilized would do well to consider” (32).
The bulk of his work is essentially topical in structure, interspersing studies of broader cultural concepts with those of a more geographical and political nature. Such an approach reconciles two aspects of the age that he believes are “often left disconnected.” The “cultural and intellectual output of the period” simply cannot be explained without first understanding the “political, economic, and administrative changes that took place after Alexander” (xiii). Each chapter can therefore be traced back to either cultural concepts or the geopolitical context in which they were developed (each of which he then elaborates on chronologically).
Shipley first considers the impact of Alexander’s death and the conflicts of succession that it spurred through 276 BC, and then moves into a discussion of the continuing development of the concepts of the kingship and the polis. In particular, he finds that “Despite earlier anxieties on the part of scholars, a consensus is growing that the Greek polis (city-state) continued to exist and in some respects to flourish and prosper [after Alexander’s death]; it seems clear that more cities were in some sense democratic than before, but that their freedom of action was limited” by the transfer of influence from hegemonies to outright monarchies (Shipley 3).
Next, the narrative moves into a discussion of the religion and philosophy of the Greeks during this time, covering changes that led toward both a broader agreement in principle as well as increased local variation in practice. Shipley then examines the cultural and social tensions of the period through the witness of extant literary works, including the development of Greek thought on the cosmos.
The first realm of geopolitics Shipley addresses is that of the Greek homeland itself, including the evolving relationship between Greece and Macedonia. He then moves south to Egypt under the Ptolemies before returning north to the Seleukid Empire, discussing the scarcity of their resources, their dynastic situation, and other matters relating to their governance.
Both aspects (political and cultural) come to a crossroads with the rise of Roman influence in the west. Shipley concludes his work with a discussion of how this influence gradually brings an end to a politically independent Greece while also bringing a cultural victory as the Romans themselves absorb a Rome-filtered form of Hellenism into their own identity as a people.
The breadth of this work is by far its greatest strength. The first-time reader is provided a thorough survey of Hellenistic history that gives attention to a number of points often left uncovered in modern works on the ancient Greeks. It also gives full credit to a period that is relegated to a final chapter in most survey works on the subject. For example, as Kitto notes in his own previous work: “I have stopped short with Alexander the Great . . . not because I think the Greece of the next few centuries unimportant, but on the contrary because I think it far too important to be tucked away in a perfunctory final chapter – which is often what happens to it” (11). Thankfully Shipley has filled much of this void.
The work’s other great strength is the shear number of classical works Shipley employs to provide the reader further sources for inquiry. His list of abbreviations for classical sources alone is seven pages long, which he supplements with nearly two hundred pages of notes, diagrams, indexes, and bibliography. This is especially useful for historiography, broadening the scope of future literary endeavors as both a reader and a writer. Often, however, his use of parenthetical citations and notes can be confusing to one unfamiliar with either Greek history or citations of classical works. For example, consider this excerpt from page 51:
In the Greek west, the tyrant Agathokles of Syracuse took the royal title in 304, some twelve years after seizing power over his city from an oligarchic regime, ‘since he thought that neither in power nor in territory nor in deeds was he inferior to them’ (the Diadochoi; Diod. 20. 54. 1.). (Diodoros, 19.5-31. 17 passim, is our main source, mostly using Timaios.) Already exiled twice, Agothokles was apparently recalled by the people and, with Carthaginian help, returned in 319/8, becoming ‘strategos (general) with full powers over the strongholds in Sicily’ (Parian Marble (FGH 239), B 12, Austin 21, Harding 1 a). Three years later he overthrew the six hundred oligarchs and became strategos in charge of the city, in effect a tyrant (Diod. 19. 9. 4.).
Though these citations may indeed scare off any first-time reader, they should not. As one reads the book, it becomes ever easier to train one’s eye to skip the citations during the first reading and then rereading the passage with an eye on the sources. Nonetheless, should the author have used either endnotes or footnotes, the reader’s effort could be employed to more productive ends.
Perhaps Shipley’s greatest strength, however, is in clearly demonstrating the value of Hellenism not merely as an historical period, but as a way of life, seamlessly uniting the cultural and political threads of ancient life. Though at times tedious, he provides a survey of the Hellenistic age that is as deep as it is broad. Though the work’s rhythm occasionally falls out of clear diction into that of a bibliographic essay, in general it will continue to serve the author’s, and the reader’s, purposes well.
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Sparta is one of the most widely admired and least understood communities of ancient Greece. Spartans were legendary in their own time for their martial prowess and obvious ‘otherness,’ even among their fellow Greeks. Their praise has since arisen from various corners across both time and space. The Roman republicans remembered the ‘good order’ of Sparta’s mixed government. Western writers (including recent Greek nationalists) remembered the Spartans’ noble stand at Thermopylae against the might of the Persian Empire. And the Nazis spoke admiringly of Sparta’s outright eugenics. Recently this interest in Sparta has taken on a more popular form as Thermopylae continues to amaze audiences through the artistic license of Steven Pressfield in his Gates of Fire and the resulting graphic novel and movie 300 (the latter of which is graphic in another sense). One might wonder then what there can “possibly still be to talk about that merits focusing all this media and other attention on ancient Sparta” (Cartledge 10). In his laconically titled book The Spartans, Paul Cartledge attempts to answer just such a “complex question” (10).
Cartledge approaches his subject with an unmatched depth of knowledge and experience in Spartan historiography. His well-known interest in Sparta is attested to by four previously published monographs on the subject as well as by sixteen other works in Greek history, which he has either edited or written (a partial list of these works is located toward the front of this particular volume). Throughout, the author’s conclusions are well supported by the findings of his own previous writings (including eighteen articles, books and essays; 289-290), which he supplements extensively with another six pages of sources on the subject. Also helpful is a broad sampling of classical sources including Thucydides, Plutarch, Herodotus, Sappho, Aristophanes, Pindar, Terpander, Simonides, Aristotle, Alcman, Xenophon, Arrian and Pausinias. Individual citations are contained in the form of endnotes immediately following the appendix (283-285).
The Spartans, however, is Cartledge’s first popular work on the subject. But by ‘popular’ history he does not mean “a process of dumbing-down . . . but rather one of wising-up; making the roots – or one of the taproots – of our western civilization more accessible, more user-friendly, reminding people in today’s three-minute attention span culture just how important it is to know where, ultimately, they are coming from, in a cultural sense” (273; see 10). Knowing this intended audience well, Cartledge attempts to emphasize in his work both the fact and the fiction behind what he calls “the Spartan myth” (24); that grand generalization of the Spartans as a people of tradition, duty, and courage that appeals to all and changes none.
The introduction is essential to understanding the role the book’s structure plays in meeting the author’s stated purpose. For the novice of Spartan history, Cartledge sets the stage for the ensuing narrative by providing a summary of the script (the book’s purpose, material, and sources) as well as its setting (a general overview of Greek and Lacedaemonian geography and topography). The narrative itself, however, is not purely chronological. Instead, it is “interspersed with snapshot biographies” in order to “bring the story of the past vividly and personally to life, and explore and illustrate underlying historical themes and processes” (23). This narrative is then presented in three parts, dealing in turn with Sparta’s ascension to prominence, height of influence, and its later decline.
Part I of the book takes its title from the popular epithet, “Go, tell the Spartans!” in order to explain this Spartan myth, in which “Sparta evolved into the most powerful fighting force in the ancient Greek world without ever completely transcending or obscuring the traces of its origins” (25).
Cartledge traces the roots of Sparta’s cultural identity to three sources: their traditional participation (and precipitation) of the Trojan War; their unique Lycurgan view of political, military, and social life; and the community’s relationship to its Peloponnesian neighbors (particularly the helots). He then continues by discussing the implications of Sparta’s foreign policy prior to the Persian Wars, namely their growing expansionism, opposition to tyrants, and high-handed treatment of their Peloponnesian allies. This rise to prominence is then crystallized by the valor of the 300 at Thermopylae and Sparta’s dual leadership with Athens throughout the remainder of the conflict. To heighten these events, the author also relates the lives of Helen, Lycurgus, Cleomenes I, Demaratus, Gorgo, Dieneces, and Pausanias as each becomes an actor on the historical scene.
The second part of the book is entitled “The Spartan Myth” and specifically addresses how Sparta behaved once this myth had become well-known by both the Greeks in general and the Spartans in particular. In no event is this more clearly demonstrated than “the epic confrontation between Sparta and Athens and their respective allies,” which Cartledge refers to (from the Spartan perspective) as “the Athenian War” (33).
When Athens formed the Delian League to press the naval fight against the Persians, the alliance resulted in rivalry between it and the already existing Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. Thus, over time this rivalry became outright opposition when Sparta denied Athenian assistance during their helot revolts. Cartledge then dials back the tempo of his otherwise bellicose narrative long enough to discuss the more serene aspects of Spartan womanhood and religion, before relating how the military necessity of the Athenian War convinced Sparta to beg assistance from mercenaries, the Persians, and even their helots to win decisively—and even then at sea. Biographic sketches of leaders in this period include Tisamenus, Archidamus II, Brasidas, and Lysander.
Part III concludes the main body of the text by addressing “A Crippled Kingship” and how the Spartans’ military victory over the Athenians led to a political and cultural decline that was exacerbated by a lack of principled leadership. After securing victory over the Athenians, the Spartans were at the pinnacle of imperialist sentiment, employing the vocabulary of self-determination to substitute Spartan intervention for that of outside (mainly Persian) intervention in the preceding century. Combined with increased monetization at home and the consolidation of large amounts of property in the hands of a few, the Spartans then experienced a decline in the number of full citizens. With the arrival of Rome on the Greek scene, Sparta then experienced a brief revival of neo-Lycurgan reforms before reinventing itself as a nostalgic tourist hotspot, beginning the romanticizing of Spartan history that continues through our own period. And to exemplify these trends, Cartledge briefly describes the lives of Cynisca, Antalcidas, Archidamus III, Isadas, Areus I and Nabis.
Also included is an appendix entitled “Hunting—Spartan-Style” which, while seemingly peripheral, elaborates on certain historiographical problems inherent to drawing modern-day applications from the example of Sparta or any other Greek community. This section was produced mainly as a James Loeb lecture at Harvard in response to Roger Scruton’s book On Hunting, which Scruton hoped would both justify and advocate modern British foxhunting (285, 275). What Cartledge seeks to demonstrate is how such historical moralizing often takes events and themes out of their historical context and interprets them in a wholly unhistorical way.
Of particular concern here to Cartledge is Scruton’s generalization of Greek hunting, which is not only oversimplified due to differences between each Greek community but because it also fails to reflect the apparent religious, sensual, and political concepts that motivated various communities to hunt in the first place. (It was Athens where hunting became known for its religious and sensual aspects, hunting in Sparta was far more about citizens producing food for the common messes. In either case we deal with a distinct political concepts that no longer hold true for modern Great Britain.)
Also telling is Scruton’s silence concerning the human hunting that Spartans engaged in as part of their perpetual state of war against their neighboring helots. In other words, by his silence on human hunting and praise of Spartan hunting in general, Scruton advocates what even Aristotle criticized.
The Spartan sort of education, [Aristotle] observed, was systematically defective, in that it aimed to inculcate only one kind of virtue, martial courage, and tended therefore to turn out . . . ‘beast-like’ . . . Spartans [who held to a] practice that presumably not even Roger Scruton would wish to invoke as ancestral legitimation of his own pastime of choice. (Cartledge 281)
Throughout the work, Cartledge maintains a style that aids both the beginning and advanced student of Spartan history. Unlike many works on Greek language and culture, the author strikes a fine balance between explaining various Greek words and phrases in order to reveal their meaning in context and drilling so deep into the Greek as to bring the reader to the point of utter exasperation. By also offering alternatives to certain traditional translations of words (e.g. the polis as ‘citizen-state’ as opposed to ‘city-state;’ 56) he aids all by making the meaning of the original both clear and concise.
Perhaps the least attractive aspect of the work’s format is the pagination of the various biographies throughout the book. While helpful, these biographies are not as distinguishable from the main body of the text as they could be. Simple changes such as a light gray background would be welcome for the sake of flow. This would also allow the reader to skip the biographies and backtrack after finishing the chapter if so desired.
The effect of all of these factors on the overall relevance of The Spartans is overwhelmingly positive. Cartledge has taken full advantage of the rising popularity in Spartan history as an impetus for a genuine, scholarly review of Sparta’s glory days for the general reader.
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Rebecca Pahle, Mental Floss
C.S. Lewis: Secret Government Agent
Harry Lee Poe, Christianity Today
J.R.R. Tolkien & the Exorcism of the Tape Recorder
E.H. Kern, Book Riot
Listen to Tolkien Read & Sing from The Lord of the Rings
Anna Green, Mental Floss
Mere Christianity Still Gets a Global Amen
George M. Marsden, Wall Street Journal
Studying the Silmarillion
Nathan Jennings, Living Church
Surprised by Jack: Mere Christianity & Modern Science
David Williams, BioLogos
Russell Kirk & the Swords of Imagination
Darrin Moore, The Imaginative Conservative
Ayn Rand's The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
Mallory Ortberg, The Toast
A Good Word for Locke
Richard J. Mouw, First Things
How Did Lewis & Tolkien Defend the Old West?
Bradley J. Birzer, The Imaginative Conservative
The Moral Conservatism of Nathaniel Hawthorne
Russell Kirk, The Imaginative Conservative
The Religious Views of William Shakespeare
Kenneth Colston, First Things
That Hideous Strength & the Future of the Church
Jake Meador, Patheos
A Fantastic Fellowship
Bianca Czaderna, First Things
The Holiness of Hobbitry
Adam Schwartz, The University Bookman
Oxford's Influential Inklings
Philip & Carol Zaleski, The Chronicle of Higher Education
N.T. Wright, Touchstone
Studying the Seven
The Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College
In today’s marriage debates it is far too easy for some to forget that for over 2,000 years the definition of marriage was a closed issue. Not closed because other relationships were unknown, especially among the social elite, but because natural differences and long custom had established a view of the relationship that was held as self-evident.
Victorian culture, however, eroded this foundation. Not (as many would say) by placing too great an emphasis on marriage, but in doing so for the worst of reasons – money – and thereby reducing marriage to a mere economic relationship. In my view, the clearly reasoned and passionately portrayed argument against this view remains one of Austen’s chief accomplishments. Her works are filled with women experiencing the ubiquitous tension between marital bliss and financial stability. Yet, it would be easy to overlook the fact that for men, too, this became a real issue in the pursuit of one’s lifelong companion.
Consider the villains of two of Austen’s more famous works, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. In both cases the male character that in the end becomes the antagonist is none other than the man who chooses to marry for wealth rather than true regard. Thus, while both the readers and the characters themselves are initially won over by the charm of John Willoughby and George Wickham, in the end both men fall from grace. The tension between wealth and happiness is therefore just as present in the lives of Victorian men, but even more lamentable, since it remains primarily in their power to change things for the better.
But as we have pointed out before, Austen does not propose systematic reform, but instead calls on otherwise eligible bachelors to act in accord with their heart and head, while also tempering women’s expectation that marriage will solve all of their problems. Otherwise, the prominent women in her stories would have died old maids; instead, they fall in love, marry rich men, and settle down to live happily ever after. Austen therefore reminds us that while financial security remains an important part of family life, happiness cannot be bought.
What was even worse with the Victorian view of marriage, though, was its subjugation of the souls of men and women to these essentially economic ends. Education in Victorian England thus became focused on producing male heirs in order to provide for one’s future financial security. And this, of course, led to a logical conclusion for women: educating them in order to secure an advantageous marriage.
Thus for the Victorian woman, education became one of “accomplishment” in various home-grown skills as opposed to any formal system of schooling. Though such an arrangement would perhaps be effective in particular subjects for both boys and girls, it had the effect of producing skill without instilling a commensurate regard for good sense. Consider the early conversation at Netherfield in Pride and Prejudice concerning such “accomplished” women:
“Oh! certainly,” cried his [Mr. Darcy’s] faithful assistant [Miss Bingley], “no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.”
Miss Bingley clearly intends her remarks to appropriate to herself the honor of being “accomplished,” in contrast to Elizabeth. Darcy, however – in order to deflect Miss Bingley’s overt attempt to impress him and to point to Miss Bennet’s greatest asset – states that a good reader is to be preferred over one who is accomplished in everything but the use of her mind.
A similar conversation arises at Rosings Park, in which Lady Catherine becomes at first gravely interested and then outright shocked that Elizabeth and her sisters have never had a governess to look after and instruct them in such feminine arts. Her concern is that such a lack of attention and diligence on the part of the parents must only produce an equal lack of diligence on the part of the children; the girls must have been greatly neglected. Elizabeth’s reply presents a quite different view: “Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might” (ch. 29).
In both conversations, and in rather different contexts, then, we see Darcy and Elizabeth come to the same conclusion concerning education: much is certainly to be learned and some of this does indeed require specialized instruction, but in the end a broadminded, diligent reader will never fail to be the better student.
Austen’s views on marriage are therefore intimately connected to her views on virtue and human nature. Neither marriage or education can thus be tied to economic ends (a lesson both capitalists and communists need to learn), but must instead seek to cultivate the perfection of our lives through the reformation of our souls. In other words, what makes Austen’s novels work so well (and distinguishes her these days as a conservative) is her belief in right and wrong.
Among the many themes running throughout Jane Austen’s works, her concern for women remains the most discussed these days. Each of her novels is built around a strong female character that makes us reconsider how we view the better half of the human race. There is, however, something lacking from Austen’s work that continues to puzzle modern feminists: the complete lack of a consciously feminist agenda for reform. Consider the following statement from Hooker:
A seed was being planted; women’s communities were demanding a more central intellectual role in European life. This seed would blossom into the revolutionary feminist works at the end of the century: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Women.
Hooker’s implied assumption is that early feminism was the seed, but not the flower. It possesses a kernel of truth, but is not able to see it to fruition. Here, I believe, we have a classic case of judging works not on their individual merit, but by an exclusively modern standard of ‘truth’ and ‘justice’. Was Austen concerned about the fare of women? Absolutely! Did Austen intend to remedy this through political and electoral reform? Absolutely not. And this is not because her vision was limited to her own generation. Instead, it is because she understands the general course of human nature and history to teach us that men and women are equal, but different, and that this is a very good thing!
Neither in her life, nor in her writings, was Jane Austen a rebel. Her chief concern was virtue, not rebellion, and against the liberal attempt to erase the distinctions between man and woman, Jane always distinguished between the particular virtues appropriate to men and women, as well as their particular vices and follies. (Wiker 228)
Thus, as even the least perceptive Austen fan could tell you, the strength of Austen’s female characters lies in their moral authority, their quiet strength, and their steadfast devotion – in a word, their character. They were strong women because they were strong people who combined bedrock principles with a prudent, common sense approach to the problems of everyday life, even those problems that were unique to women.
Several specifics could be discussed (two of which we’ll look at next week), but in the end it comes down to this: Austen was not trying to free women from traditional institutions, she was trying to free those institutions (and the men and women within them) from the dross of decay, by pointing them back to their heads and their hearts. As Wiker also points out, though, we unfortunately failed to learn the lesson she did her best to teach:
Sadly, both original species presented by Austen are largely extinct. Women like Elinor [or Elizabeth] have been driven out of the culture by force or ridicule, and the Mariannes [and Kittys] have given way to something even more alarming. The Romantics might have been destructive of themselves and others (as they are in Austen’s novels), but Romanticism has been replaced by something far worse, nihilism – what is really the fulfillment of Romanticism and liberalism. (Wiker 231)
So while the world wanted more Donne and Shakespeare, what they got was Freud and Nietzsche; and this remains the Achilles’ heel of many feminists today. By reducing gender to a mere custom and relationships to a power-play, they have fallen prey to the same fallacy as every abusive chauvinist in history: that sex is a weapon to be yielded, rather than a gift to be nurtured. Austen, however, reminds us of the beauty and splendor of the gift, and calls us back to its enjoyment and true perfection in marital bliss (in the case of her characters) or chaste single-hood (in light of her own example).
In our discussion of civics, we began with a recognition of certain biblical principles (justice, honor, righteousness) that are essential to a truly Christian interaction with the world around us. And though these principles have taken a variety of forms throughout the ages, in our current cultural climate they are often labeled as conservative or traditional. But this sort of conservatism is more than a contemporary political philosophy, its roots go much deeper (going back to the Garden) and broader (drawing from both the East and the West) than our current place in time and space.
We find an interesting parallel to these thoughts in a short, three-chapter treatise by C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man. A few months ago, we saw a glimpse of his approach to ethics by way of his views on universal morality and the Golden Rule. For example, in Miracles Lewis writes:
If we are to continue to make moral judgements (and whatever we say we shall in fact continue) then we must believe that the conscience of man is not a product of Nature. It can be valid only if it is an offshoot of some absolute moral wisdom, a moral wisdom which exists absolutely ‘on its own’ and is not a product of non-moral, non-rational Nature. (60)
Though this theme recurs in several of his other works as well (Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, and even the “deep magic” of Narnia), in The Abolition of Man, it becomes the fundamental ground of both educational and political reform. If being human means anything at all, this meaning must drive our efforts to live, love and learn. But by rejecting this traditional understanding of human nature, modernism reflects a narrow and incomplete view of humanity, which can only produce more of the same: “Men without Chests” (AM 25).
To illustrate this principle of universal morality, Lewis intentionally draws on the Confucianism of the East and its conception of the Tao (the Path or Way). “It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others are really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are” (18). So by living in a world that actually exists and among actual people capable of reason, man can utilize his common sense to recognize this Way and live by it.
Such a view of the Tao is present in almost every pre-modern or modern society, though under a sundry of different names, such as “Natural Law or Practical Reason or the First Platitudes” (43). In truth, then, it is not merely one way to view reality, it is the Way: “It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained” (43). Or as he states previously with greater brevity, “If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved” (40). Rationality depends on an objective reality and meaning outside, and independent of, human thought. And if we cannot even agree on the fundamental facts of reality human reason (much less language!) is a mere exercise in futility.
Of course, as we have pointed out before, the self-evident existence of the Tao does not extend to complete identity of ethical principles and precepts across cultures. Lewis, thus readily admits that, “Some criticism, some removal of contradictions, even some real development is required” (45). But this does not amount to a completely subjective, relativistic view of morality, since reality itself provides the ultimate test of authenticity. So while one age may “harmonize discrepancies in its letter by penetration to its spirit,” these developments are a vindication and fulfillment of the Way, rather than evidence of its demise (47). In other words “the Tao admits development,” but only “from within” (45).
Though modern ethical and political thinkers have rejected much of traditional thought on the subject, Lewis also provides a stern warning. If freedom is indeed the goal (or better, one of the goals) of Western democracy, democracies must recognize and renew their commitment to core principles, or else collapse into sheer tyranny. “Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery” (73). If the Tao falls, so does human dignity, so does common sense, so do human communities.
As you have probably figured out by now, true civics is much more than politics. It is a religious, moral and cultural endeavor that seeks to reform human society based on timeless principles; to remind us what it means to be human; and to point us to an order and a Mind far above our own. As we continue our march to the midterms, then, we will progress in what may seem strange directions, but which grow naturally from the principles we have discussed thus far (discussing literature, education, economics, and foreign policy) all the while maintaining a primarily literary approach (Jane Austen, Aristotle, Harold Bloom, Lawrence Levine, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, and Samuel Huntington). But before we proceed, we must address the greatest threat to such an approach: the post-modern pragmatism of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Gulliver’s Travels is a political satire on British politics, written by Jonathan Swift in four parts. Part I recounts Gulliver’s visit to the Lilliputians, and discusses the proper uses of power. Part II recounts the narrator’s sojourn in Brobdingnag, focusing on the nature of corruption. In Part III Gulliver discusses his briefer visits to four nations, critiquing their emphasis on speculative philosophy. The author then concludes in Part IV by addressing the root of these problems: a faulty view of human nature. The overall message is that politics is at heart an extension and consummation of ethics.
Swift frames his discussion of epistemology and ethics in terms of nature, virtue and reason. To Swift, these principles are of equal import, but must also be placed in their natural order so as to achieve the proper balance between the three. Human nature (especially in contrast with other creatures) encourages each of us to subject the desires of flesh to those of mind. The uniquely human goal, then, is virtue; an excellence in thought and deed that is achieved not only by doing good, but by taking pleasure in it as well. Virtue, however, is impossible without the unique human capacity of reason, which in turn must be employed within the framework of man’s moral nature. So, for example, Swift employs an absurdity (a rational horse) in order to call man back to both the rational nature of man and the moral roots of rationality (IV.VII-VIII).
Education plays an extensive role throughout Gulliver’s Travels and is first seen in his account of the Lilliputians and their views on the family and education in the sixth chapter of Book I. There the narrator recounts that in their view, the family is defined primarily by its biological functions as opposed to natural affection. The relationship between parents and children therefore ends as soon as the child has lived “twenty moons.” At such a time the child is sent to a boarding school of sorts where they are prepared “for such a condition of life as befits the rank of their parents, and their capacities, as well as inclinations.” And since such an education is provided for the poor from public coffers, the greatest sin of poverty is reproduction: “For the Lilliputians think nothing can be more unjust, than for people, in subservience to their own appetites, to bring children into the world, and leave the burthen of supporting them on the public” (I.VI). Later in his tales, Gulliver recounts a similar sort of schooling among the Houyhnhnms (IV.VIII) and, in fact, attributes it to the very same cause: “They have no fondness for their colts or foals, but the care they take in educating them proceeds entirely from the dictates of reason” (IV.VIII, emphasis added).
It might at first seem that Swift’s intent is to recommend such a program for those in his own time, but the above quoted passage on the Lilliputians may well indicate otherwise when considered in light of Swift’s corpus, particularly A Modest Proposal. There, the author states that since no reform has yet succeeded in assisting the poor, the only ‘logical’ solution is to breed such children for human consumption, thereby reducing the number of the poor and contributing greatly to Ireland’s domestic trade. Swift’s sarcasm, however, then proposes (in a roundabout way) several other more sensible measures. Combine this with the king of Brobdingnag’s criticisms at the close of Book II (II.VI) and his clear distaste for the abstract and speculative philosophers of the academy at Lagado (II.V-VI), and it would seem that the accounts of education in Gulliver’s Travels are made in order to criticize such Spartan or utopian schemes and to instead foster education reform because of (rather than in spite of) traditional family and moral life.
For a more complete treatment of these issues, see the series, Horses, Yahoos and a Lesson in Humility (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).