We asked some of Law & Liberty‘s contributors for their thoughts on what to read this summer, whether you are enjoying a vacation or on a mandatory staycation. Here is what they suggested:
David B. Frisk
One way to spend discretionary reading time is with our specialties. Or we can seek entertainment or explore a new field. I like to read slightly outside of my usual focus. Knowing what our intellectual neighbors have written is a healthy corrective to a preoccupation with our intellectual families.
The Righteous Mind by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is brilliant and often fun. It could have gone even deeper and still held a serious reader’s interest, despite its 377 pages of text. Its subtitle, Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, has a non-academic tone but also makes a measurable claim: Does the author succeed in telling us “why”? In this case, I would say largely yes. In conversational yet careful prose, Haidt makes a seemingly major addition to our understanding of the Red-Blue divide. (The “Religion”part in his title is secondary. The Righteous Mind is mainly about human reasoning and emotion on public matters.) Haidt—an active defender of intellectual diversity who has since co-founded worthy projects called Heterodox Academy and OpenMind Platform—made his widespread reputation in political psychology with this 2012 book, which draws partly upon his own research on the differing “moral foundations” people have.
Haidt says our political convictions are rooted in emotion far more than reason, yet emotion results from natural evolution and is at bottom functional, not dysfunctional. And we can, realistically, commit ourselves somewhat more to reason than we normally do. The convictions associated with the Left and the Right are based to a great extent on differing moral foundations in our minds. Liberals, i.e. “progressives,” focus very largely on Care or preventing Harm (in the term’s basic humanitarian meaning) and on maintaining or establishing Fairness or Equality. Libertarians, Haidt shows, are quite another breed than Conservatives because they have their own moral foundation, obviously Liberty, and it greatly overshadows all others despite some concern among them for Fairness/Equality. Conservatives have by far the broadest range of serious moral foundations. To concerns about harm and fairness, they add strong attachments to Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity (which need not be religious in the usual sense). Far from dismissing these distinctive features of conservative public morality, Haidt is quite respectful of them from his own slightly left-of-center perspective.
Good-humoredly, the dominant metaphors in The Righteous Mind come from the natural world: big, easily wayward elephant (emotion) and small rider (reason), chimpanzees (competitive, 90 percent of human nature) and bees (cooperative and “ultrasocial,” 10 percent of human nature, more recent in evolutionary terms). Haidt also introduces us arrestingly to our modern selves—and reminds us that we aren’t typical of homo sapiens—with the category he impishly calls WEIRD: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. Most of the world is not. Many Americans are not. The fully WEIRD are the full liberals or progressives, or at least they tend to stress almost exclusively the same moral foundations as the liberals. The five WEIRD characteristics don’t mean that we in the Western middle and upper-middle classes are necessarily smarter or better, especially since they tend in Haidt’s judgment to make us devalue the common good and the interests of the community, including the family. The title of one of its three sections is among the main points in The Righteous Mind. It should be burned into the brains of every officeholder, every citizen, and every student in our increasingly simple-minded WEIRD world: “There’s More to Morality than Harm and Fairness.” Damn right there is.
Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse by Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon could, perhaps, be read with special profit in conjunction with The Righteous Mind. Published in 1991, it shows, from what might be called a compassionate-conservative perspective, that the concept of absolute or nearly absolute rights can be a cold and sickly thing. Glendon argues effectively, with a good range of examples, that its long-growing dominance tends to impoverish our communication with others, including empathy for their inconvenient concerns—thus, too, inhibiting and flattening deliberation in government about the public good. Sadly, the excessive “rights talk” and the closely-associated aggrandizement of legalism—relying on the law for everything—have resulted in a “law-saturated society.” They have become simplistic, selfish substitutes for moral reasoning in our public life.
Truer words were never spoken, and they are even truer today, a generation after Glendon illuminated the problem. Would more respect for the now old-fashioned “time, place, and manner” exceptions to absolute freedom of speech have been good in the legally, but not always verbally or emotionally, nonviolent urban protests following the horrible death of George Floyd—protests that even many opponents of the simultaneous riots and looting quickly suggested were beyond criticism? This book would suggest that respect for “time, place, and manner” exceptions might have been good in those circumstances. It certainly makes clear how their general eclipse since the 1960s is among the high prices we pay for our addiction to absolute rights talk.
The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office (2017) can be read as a counterpart to an even more recent book, The Lost Soul of the American Presidency. The latter’s author, Stephen Knott, a professor of national security affairs, tries to show that the office has sunk into demagoguery during our republic’s odyssey and how it might be healthily renewed. The problem, he preaches, is “not … the ‘imperial presidency’ but the populist presidency.” Historian Jeremi Suri is troubled by popular pressures on the presidency too, and he can’t stand Donald Trump either. But The Impossible Presidency follows in the non-philosophical tradition of political scientist Richard Neustadt, who argued plausibly back in 1960 that the presidency is a fundamentally “weak” office—strong only, or sometimes strong, when a president assiduously exercises the complicated skills needed to make it so. Suri differs most significantly from Neustadt in stressing not the limits our system puts on our chief executive, but rather the virtually limitless modern demands upon the office, along with what he considers our presidents’ runaway agendas and their compulsion to deal extensively with crises. The Impossible Presidency can, among other things, help explain to people who vehemently oppose Trump why they needn’t be so fearful of him—and, to his staunch supporters, why they shouldn’t expect so much.
The ten presidents whom Suri discusses, concisely but not superficially in this quite well-written book, are given chapter titles with varying degrees of creativity. One of the better ones is Poet at War, for Lincoln. The book also analyzes the National Healer (FDR), the Frustrated Frontiersmen (Kennedy and Johnson—but especially JFK), the Leading Actor (Reagan), and the Magicians of Possibility (Clinton and Obama). The Frustrated Frontiersmen are, in Suri’s sometimes overconfident but always interesting analysis, the first fully modern presidents. The post-New Deal and Cold War era, with its proliferating new demands on the office, did set the stage for the White House of our time. But Kennedy and Johnson are central because the author thinks they overpromised and attempted too much, which he finds a general characteristic of the presidency ever since. The Magicians of Possibility are figures whom Suri emphatically praises for their rise, against the socioeconomic odds, from low to high status and for their related ability to connect so well with historically marginalized groups. He also finds Clinton and Obama something like the Frustrated Frontiersmen, but notes that they inherited an even more difficult presidency.
Finally, let me call attention to a tome published in 2013 by a simultaneous political scientist and historian. Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time is commendable, first of all, for its theme. My guess is that Law & Liberty readers have, by now, read more books that discuss the Progressive Era and closely related topics than ones about the New Deal, let alone books on it and World War II and the early Cold War, with all of these joined in a credibly unified way. Especially in such a fearful year as 2020, perhaps a little of that time can be reallocated from the Progressives or the Founding to the New Deal, especially as Katznelson unusually conceives it, bringing three distinct (or were they?) mid-century periods together.
Katznelson’s tone and choices of focus have a gravitas that matches his subject. He is thought-provokingly critical of, although he doesn’t fundamentally regret, the New Deal enactments and America’s rise to superpower status. He views them as a success story, and indeed a democratic success story, while stressing its moral complications and compromises including prominently, but perhaps not excessively, certain New Deal compromises with racism. In the late 1950s, Henry F. May wrote what I recall as an excellent intellectual history titled The End of American Innocence, which covered the period from 1912 to 1917. Katznelson’s book, covering a far longer, even more crucial period, is about the end of somewhat different kinds of American innocence. Unlike May’s, it heavily stresses government and politics (in that order). It’s anything but a barrel of laughs, and you’ll be reading a fair amount of well-chosen policy detail. It also seems to me profoundly intelligent, excellently researched by a truly independent mind, and a good investment of time.
—David B. Frisk is a resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization and the author of If Not Us, Who? William Rusher, National Review, and the Conservative Movement (ISI Books, 2012).
I suspect that I am somewhat of an outlier, but my summer reading is usually an opportunity for me to return to books and authors which I have found illuminating in the past.
First on my list this year will be Richard Pipes’ classic The Russian Revolution (1990). Modern Russian history has long fascinated me, particularly the events of 1917 and 1918 which produced the world’s first Bolshevik government. Certainly there is no shortage of books about this topic. But Pipes’ text was especially important because it placed the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II’s regime in February 1917, the Bolshevik coup d’état of October 1917, and Lenin’s rise to power in the broader context of the movement of ideas in Western Europe going back to the early Enlightenment.
Pipes paid attention to questions of contingency and he highlighted the important role assumed by individuals in driving organizations in specific directions. But if you want to see how the writings of particular 17th and 18th century intellectuals eventually contributed to the establishment of a regime which would bring death and destruction to millions of people 300 years later, Pipes’ book is highly instructive.
Pipes was adept at drawing connections between the insights provided by different disciplines so as to elucidate the complexity of human affairs. So too was the author of another book which I intend to re-read. In 1978, F.A. Hayek published a collection of essays entitled New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and the History of Ideas. Some of the essays involve Hayek summarizing his views about topics like social justice or the deeper causes of inflation. Other essays, however, constitute concise analyses of topics which had long interested Hayek. Prominent among these is his Nobel Prize address, “The Pretence of Knowledge,’” in which Hayek famously explains in exceptionally clear language why he believed much mainstream economics had lost its way. Also worth attention is an essay simply called “Liberalism.” This is Hayek’s account of the origins of two very different traditions of liberalism. One was the continental liberalism that he associated with the likes of Voltaire and Rousseau. The second is the “Old Whig” tradition that draws upon classical and medieval sources but which achieved a type of maturity in the Anglo-American world towards the end of the eighteenth century. Understanding the latter is, I think, crucial for anyone who wants to understand the “liberalism wars” underway in America today.
As a participant in that particular debate in the pages of Law & Liberty and elsewhere, I hope to re-immerse myself in Forrest McDonald’s classic 1985 text, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. (For those who want to learn more about McDonald, I’d suggest that they watch the DVD of Liberty Fund’s Intellectual Portrait series which contains an extensive interview of one of the American Founding’s best historians). Novus Ordo Seclorum functions as a powerful reminder that while many competing ideas shaped the United States Constitution, there was more agreement about the proper ends of government and the Founding’s core values than perhaps realized.
McDonald was attuned to the ways in which economic life and competing economic ideas shaped the American Revolution and the Founding. The establishment of a sophisticated financial system was central to the post-1789 American Republic’s astonishing economic success. Few books examine the topic as well as Thomas K. McCraw’s The Founders and Finance: How Hamilton, Gallatin, and Other Immigrants Forged a New Economy. I happen to believe that you can’t really understand America or American capitalism unless you grasp the crucial significance of finance and private capital in driving America’s economy. One of the United States’ most important historians of business, McCraw provided a detailed and readable overview of how financial capitalism was established in America, and the role played by some exceptionally bright immigrants to America in forging institutional links between economic ideas and one of the main engines of America’s long-term prosperity.
Finally, I will revisit the autobiography of someone else who thought and wrote widely about monetary policy and financial capitalism. While Jacques Rueff is hardly a household name today, he was one of the twentieth century’s foremost monetary theorists. But Rueff was not only immersed in classical liberal ideas. He was also one of those rare individuals who was in a position to integrate them into the formation of policy.
As a senior treasury official and advisor to French governments of the Third Republic in the late-1920s and 1930s, Rueff successfully persuaded Leon Blum’s Popular Front government to reverse some of its socialist policies. He was also the intellectual architect of the monetary reform and economic liberalization implemented by Charles de Gaulle’s government in 1959. Published one year before his death in 1978, Rueff’s De l’aube au crépuscule provides a comprehensive overview of topics ranging from his debates with Keynes in the 1930s to his emergence as the world’s leading advocate of the gold standard in the 1960s and 70s. Rueff also, however, takes his readers deep inside the world of twentieth century French and European politics to show how the clear-minded promotion and application of classical liberal ideas by those skilled at political and bureaucratic maneuvering can pay off—big time. That is a message of hope for our troubled times in which those who truly care about liberty are turning out to be quite thin on the ground.
—Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He is the author of Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization.
George Steiner, the prodigious literary critic, died this past February, and I marked his passing by reading In Bluebeard’s Castle, a fascinating work of social criticism that he wrote in 1970. At just 140 readable pages, this book only took a few hours of my time, but I found myself pondering it for many more. Steiner is a superb essayist, as well as a polymath, so his work is rewarding on multiple levels. He has much to say about the World Wars and their utterly transformative effect on human history, and it was fascinating to read this a century after the 1918 armistice, and half a century after Bluebeard’s Castle was first penned. What most struck me, though, were the eerie parallels between our own time and what Steiner calls “The Great Ennui” of the 19th century. He’s thinking now about the so-called “long 19th century,” which struck many of the scholars of his own time as a relatively blessed era, at least in the developed West. Modernity’s material blessings were now widely available, but the cultural and moral ballast of the ancien régime was still substantial enough to keep civilization intact. In light of this, it’s easy to appreciate why Victorian England (for instance) looms large in the minds of many modern-day conservatives. As Steiner sees it, though, the West in this period was gripped by a brooding, restless anxiety. Reformers yearned to renew the energy of the French Revolution, while artists entertained apocalyptic fantasies that found ample fulfillment in the carnage of the Great War. It’s a fascinating theory. Just lately, as I read over the punditry’s reactions to the riots here in my own Twin Cities, I’ve been meditating again on Steiner’s “Great Ennui.” Have we again started feeling that itch for self-immolation? Where will it lead us this time? On a much lighter note, I have been taking advantage of this strange historical moment to enjoy some favorite hobbies (mostly in company with my kids). For me that’s mostly fishing, gardening, and wine-making, but hobbyists of every stripe will enjoy Jack Hitt’s Bunch of Amateurs. It’s a tribute to tinkerers, dilettantes, and obsessives everywhere. I myself have come to think that a renewed enthusiasm for amateurism might be the key to cultural renewal here in America. For all its drawbacks, a technocratic information age is basically a paradise when it comes to learning new things. Why don’t we celebrate and appreciate that more?
—Rachel Lu is a moral philosopher and a regular contributor to America Magazine, The Week, Law & Liberty, National Review, and other publications.
John O. McGinnis
During this time of crisis, it is oddly comforting to read about those who faced far worse times. Thus, I am reading the Diaries of Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness. Klemperer was a German historian of ideas living near Dresden. He managed to keep a journal from the time Hitler became Chancellor to the end of the war. He was a Protestant, but his Jewish heritage put him at constantly greater risk as Nazi power became more entrenched. He is clear eyed about the evil of fascism and the danger it poses to his wife and him. Klemperer doggedly pursues his intellectual projects even as his university dispenses with more of his services. He supports his friends as ever more of them are threatened by the dreadful regime. His constant exercise of sympathetic agency shows that even in the worst situations, people are not powerless to improve a terribly fallen world. I hope that this book will inspire some small measure of the quiet courage he displayed.
We will fully escape the pandemic only with a vaccine and/or better treatments. But many have worried that the West’s capacity for innovation is flagging, at least outside the digital economy, so burdened it is by regulation and social caution. Matt Ridley has a new book out, How Innovation Works, about how to encourage more inventiveness in our world. A modern polymath, Ridley is a superb science journalist, who has written many books about how genetics illuminates everything human—from our diseases to our social life. He also has eloquently defended free markets. Because innovation concerns bringing new science to the market in the shape of technology, no one is in a better position tell us how to improve how it is done.
I am a great fan of Antony Trollope and try to read one of his novels each year. He was so prolific, writing twenty-five hundred words a day before breakfast, that I may never get through them all. One reason for my admiration is his complex understanding of how people balance self-interest and concern for others. If the author of The Wealth of Nations and the Theory of Moral Sentiments had possessed the imagination and literary verve to be a novelist, he would have resembled Trollope. For this summer, I have chosen The American Senator in part because it offers an extended comparison of the manners and mores of England and the United States in the nineteenth century. I am sure the assessment will be more fair-minded than his mother’s Domestic Manners of Americans, which regarded us rather as the Greeks did the barbarians.
—John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University.
Summer is upon us, but it still feels like limbo. As the nation hunkered down in response to the Wuhan virus pandemic—and now begins to recover from the catastrophic effects of the economic shutdown—I ponder what lessons might be learned from these unprecedented events. Nationwide, by government order schools and businesses were closed, college students sent home, millions thrown out of work, churches were shuttered. Congress hurriedly enacted a multi-trillion-dollar stimulus package, as casually as one might order a pizza. Some governors, notably Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, asserted sweeping powers reminiscent of martial law. And, by and large, Americans obediently complied, without objection or widespread dissent. Critics were de-platformed, protesters punished.
What happened to the skeptical, independent, freedom-loving patriots who used to inhabit these United States? My reading recommendations were inspired by this question.
Robert Higgs’s 1987 classic, Crisis and Leviathan, argues that beginning with the Progressive movement, big government has grown continuously in response to perceived emergencies—such as wars, labor strife, economic inequality, and high unemployment. Logically, emergency powers should recede to “normal” following the resolution of temporary crises, but this rarely happens. In a ratchet-like fashion, the size and power of government seem to move in only one direction; always more, never less. In times of peace and prosperity, it is easy to dismiss Higgs’s argument as mere cynicism. Sadly, the Wuhan virus “crisis” illustrates the truth of Higgs’s thesis. We are frogs in a pot of heated water, approaching boil. Public health is yet another “emergency” that control-hungry government officials will exploit to expand the power of the state.
What to do? Charles Murray in By the People (2015) calls for a renewal of the “American project,” reclaiming our commitment to limited government and self-reliance. Murray offers a game plan for classical liberals, libertarians, and small-government conservatives—working together—to demand a return to our founding principles. Whether Murray’s bracing—and avowedly subversive—tonic is practicable remains to be seen, but we will never regain our freedom unless we try. The American legal system is a morass. The federal government and the administrative state need to be tamed. The political system is often dysfunctional and corrupt. Entitlements create factions and institutional sclerosis. None of this will be corrected as long as the polity remains supine.
Defending freedom requires courage—confidence in one’s moral convictions. Americans once possessed it in spades. Where did it go? Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, who passed last year at the age of 97, offers an answer in One Nation, Two Cultures (1999), one of many reflections she wrote on the decline of bourgeois values—traditional morality and other essential virtues—since the 1960s. (Throw in Robert Bork’s 1996 Slouching Towards Gomorrah for an even more pungent assessment.) Self-governing civil societies depend on voluntary association and re-moralized institutions beyond the reach of the omnipotent state.
I will end with the Right’s fierce but happy warrior, Justice Antonin Scalia, taken from us too soon in 2016. Though he is gone, his powerful words live on. Some of his most memorable opinions, and especially his fiery dissents, are collected in an excellent compilation from Regnery, Scalia’s Court, edited by Kevin Ring. You might also read The Essential Scalia (forthcoming), edited by Jeffrey Sutton and Ed Whelan. Ordinary citizens whose efforts at self-government were stymied by contemptuous lawyers and activist judges had no greater champion than the incomparable Nino.
—Mark Pulliam is a contributing editor with Law & Liberty.
America’s again in crisis, and in an election year, no less. An epidemic predictably led to catastrophic loss of life through governmental incompetence, an economic crisis is underway that might rival the Great Depression, and now we’ve also got race riots. We should think about these urgent and important problems in light of what’s most important about America. The recent book most concerned with a sound political defense of America I’ve read is The Rediscovery Of America, the latest posthumous collection of Harry Jaffa’s essays. It is of the essence of America that the essence of America must be rediscovered—we forget and then quarrel again over our past. Since liberalism is committed to the New York Times’s accusation of America as congenitally racist, as per the 1619 Project, Jaffa is the guide we need, especially the spirited among us, since to defend America we must first think seriously about America.
Another book I read recently on America is An Independent Empire, by Michael Kochin and Michael Taylor, a diplomatic history of America from before the War of Independence to the assertion of empire in the Western hemisphere in the 1820s. The two Michaels are very readable and make a very good point: the common project uniting the factions in American politics was empire, that is, taking over the entire continent. The vastness of the ambition and the seriousness with which it was pursued make America the greatest modern political enterprise. Since we are now paralyzed by complexity, we should learn how energetic and restless Americans once were. Here’s my interview with Michael Kochin.
Back to contemporary America: Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of reviewing my friend Scott Beauchamp’s book Did You Kill Anyone? for Law & Liberty. The book has much to say about how the military educates character and what makes it a more serious and helpful community than, well, our actual communities. This is an especially grave problem for men, whose agony is now the center of political conflict, but in such a way that no solutions seem likely. Perhaps we should resurrect the vocabulary of honor and ritual in our democratic times, since the manly virtues are still necessary and, at least in the military, instilled in young men.
Another grave problem in America is the underclass—those among us too poor often to have a home, more often than not without a job, become wards of the federal government, and no less miserable after two generations of vast expansions of the welfare-redistribution state. Chris Arnade’s book Dignity is the most humane exploration we have of “back row America.” It reveals how people stuck in misery still look for dignity in church, in family, and at McDonald’s, the unofficial community center of poor America. I talked to Chris about the book recently, and he explained his criticism of elites (“front row America”) from the perspective of the social situation they have encouraged and certainly profit from.
To complete these views of American society and history, I close with a book that has taught me a great deal about our aspirations, as they are presented in fiction, Peter Paik’s From Utopia To Apocalypse. (You can listen to my interview with Peter here.) Visions of our future are now primarily gloomy, even hysterical, but there is much to learn from them, and first of all the importance of self-mastery through suffering, as portrayed in visionary animations: Alan Moore’s Watchmen (I reviewed Zack Snyder’s film adaptation for Law & Liberty) and V for Vendetta (adapted to film by the creators of The Matrix) and Miyazaki’s ecological eschatology in Nausicaa. As utopian hopes crash into apocalyptic fears, it’s important to learn about the good that comes of evil, the importance of striving in building character, and therefore the sources of hope.
—Titus Techera is is the Executive Director of the American Cinema Foundation and hosts the ACF podcasts. He is a contributor to The Federalist, National Review Online, Catholic World Report, and University Bookman. He tweets as @titusfilm.
I set myself a goal to become better versed in Roman history during this past year. Rome’s rise and its fall from a republic to an empire and from an empire to dust is among the most revealing political stories in human history. Rome lasted a millennium. Its people obviously changed over that course of time. So did its politics. I hoped to learn a bit about political decadence as I studied Rome, and about the possibility of renewal through adaptation, as it seems America itself is undergoing a period of political decadence.
I started trying to understand the general arc of Roman history. For this, I listened to two excellent podcasts: Mike Duncan’s History of Rome and Lars Brownworth’s 12 Byzantine Rulers. Duncan especially provides an excellent account of the rise of Rome, its conquest of the Mediterranean, its Civil Wars, and the twists and turns of its nearly 500 year-long empire. It is a tour de force, one which I highly recommend for time when one is running, walking, or lifting weights during a staycation.
As I listened to the podcasts, I read popular histories of key moments of Roman history. Many books provide a blow-by-blow, one-thing-after-another account of key moments in Roman history, but they keep things on the level of personality. The best such popular histories show a keen awareness of regime level changes to the Roman people and polity. Concerning the crises that ended the republic and brought about the empire, the best historians see disputes over land reform or see soldiers receiving pay as levers for democratizing the polity and making the old order based on honorable deference to the Senate untenable. Mike Duncan’s Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic and Edward Jay Watts’ Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny are among the best treatments of Rome’s monumental transformation into an empire, governed by a Caesar. Both show how factional conflict intensified well before the civil wars of Marius and Sulla and Caesar and Pompey. Both raise the question “what kind of political settlement was possible in light of these factional changes.” Popular histories from other eras have proven more difficult for me to find, but I would like one on the rise of the Antonines and on the rise of Diocletian and Constantine. (Who is supposed to do the recommending here?)
Our current plague robbed me of the chance to teach Montesquieu’s Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline in class, but for what it’s worth, I made a series of videos on the book. Montesquieu’s Considerations rewards close reading, in that he shows how the seeds of Rome’s decadence are sown in its martial successes: it was undone by its virtues. Romans came to love the fruits of victory more than the preparation for victory, and hence to love the fruits of war more than their city. All was not that well in the republic, it seems, and all was not really thoroughly rotten in the empire—or at least Montesquieu shows that the empire was an intelligible reflection of a corrupt people, as opposed to some foreign imposition of Eastern despotism. His treatment of Rome’s empire has more than a little resonance for Post-New Deal America.
No book brings that reality out more than Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture. This book had been collecting dust on my shelves for decades, but the pandemic gave me time to read it. That’s a silver lining! The first half of Cochrane’s classic shows how the empire arose and how Rome was only fit for an empire at that point in its trajectory. Rome endured two periods of extraordinary demoralization, accompanied by falls in population and birth rates. During the “long sickness” culminating with end of the republic, a dispirited population lost political cohesion and confidence in the Roman way—thus began a period of declining birthrates and de-population.
Even as Rome thus declined, it created a new political form, Augustus’ emperor, an autocratic, bureaucratic service-oriented executive, who serviced this less spirited, less ambitious people. Sometimes headed by public-spirited rulers (like the “five good emperors”) and also often by malicious tyrants (Nero, Domitian), the state deepened its influence over a changing the Roman people, who had come to prefer security and stability to liberty. Ultimately, this arrangement decayed during the third century, when leaders came and went, usually violently, with greater frequency and when emperors serived the army, instead of the populace (see Chapter 19 of Machiavelli’s Prince, for a treatment of this phase). The result, as Cochrane presents it, was a collapse of the imperial fabric also accompanying further dips in population. Confidence in a political future, once again, seemed to prompt population decline.
The world, it seemed, was simply growing old. Only the surprising rise of the Illyrian generals, beginning with Aurelian, averted immediate collapse, first though tightening the imperial bureaucracy, and ultimately adopting a new Christian principle of social cohesion under Constantine. Cochrane, who finished the book in 1939, had an eye on the political meaning of greater state power throughout the Western world as he treated the decline of the old Roman way.
Where is America on the Roman road map of greatness and decadence? Are barbarians at our gates or are they inside already? Is the world growing old? All these histories show that unexpected periods of renewal can arise, but that such renewal does not come without a statesman’s deep diagnosis of the problems and having the ability to leverage resources available to meet it. The more we know about Rome, it seems, the more we can gain perspective on regime-level travails.
—Scott Yenor is a professor of political science at Boise State University. His The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies is forthcoming from Baylor University Press.
These past months of confinement have been for me, and I suppose for most of you, filled with readings and re-readings. Yet, there is never enough time for one to read all he or she wishes even when there is little else to do! Now that we are about to be allowed to leave our homes and rebuild our lives, we will have less time than before to read, but perhaps we could keep from the lockdown at least this habit together with drinking less and exercising. (I kid.)
One of the things I read while in quarantine was Camus’s 1948 novel The Plague, and if you would like help making sense of some of the things happening around us and inside our hearts in this time, that is the book for you.
The plot is set on a North African town in which its inhabitants are quarantined inside its walls for an entire year due to a Bubonic plague outbreak. The city of Oran is a microcosm for what we are experiencing now in a global scale, one that may help us to discover ourselves, our villains, heroes, beliefs, emotions and more.
One of my favorite works of fiction is Iain Pears’s 2002 The Dream of Scipio. That book reflects on the moment that the world is ending, in three different periods. First, when the Provence is surrendered to the Burgundians by its last Roman governor, second, in the middle of the Black Death, and third, during the Vichy regime in south France. There are plots and sub-plots intertwined, but I won’t say more so as not to spoil it. It is worth reading and pondering, good fodder for a long chat with friends around a campfire in a summer night with good liquor, if that habit of drinking less has not taken hold after all.
Still talking about books on public health calamities, I must commend to you the deliciously satirical short novel The Alienist. In this novella, Machado de Assis, the renowned 19th century Brazilian author, tells the story of the good and brilliant doctor Simão Bacamarte, who renounces his prestigious career and returns to his hometown to practice psychology. The problem is that soon many of his neighbors find themselves confined in the mental institution he directs. Of course, everything should have ended well, after all, his policy was conducted based on the best science available…. Sound familiar?
Finally, if you need to take a plane this summer for a two- or three-hour flight without even a snack and you are forced to wear a mask, a good reading for you is Ayn Rand’s Ideal, which was written twice in 1934, as a suspense novel and as a play, and just published in 2015. It is a thriller, time will fly, and you will even forget about that small bag of pretzels and a Coke that you are no longer entitled to have.
—Leonidas Zelmanovitz, a fellow with the Liberty Fund, holds a law degree from the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil and an economics doctorate from the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Spain.