The royal eagles on high mountains fly

Not underneath sweet shades and fountains shrill,
Among the nymphs, the fairies, leaves and flowers;
But on the steep, the rough and craggy hill
Of Virtue stands this bliss, this good of ours;
By toil and travail, not by sitting still
In pleasure’s lap we come to honour’s bowers;
Why will you thus in sloth’s deep valley lie?
The royal eagles on high mountains fly.

Torquato Tasso, Gerusalemme liberata

Book Review: How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity by Rodney Stark

This book is “MythBusters” for history. In his tour of the history of Western Civilization from its inception in ancient Greek and Jewish thought, through their combination in the cauldron of medieval Christianity, and finally emerging as full-blown modernity, Stark smashes nearly every myth about the history of the West that has developed since the Enlightenment. The hatred of Christianity which began in the Enlightenment and became Western self-hatred in the 19th and 20th centuries is finally put to rest.

Stark begins with the Greeks and the Jews, who, as he exhibits, developed a way of viewing the cosmos as rational and therefore intelligible and predictable. He then proceeds to Rome, which he credits with not much else but the invention of concrete. He moves through the Middle Ages, dispelling the false notions that the Church stifled science (on the contrary, Christianity made modern science possible), that the Crusades were a horrible imperialistic war against Islam (on the contrary, they were a series of defensive wars which were waged with the express purpose of protecting Christians against Muslim tyranny, and accomplished this goal), and many others. Finally, he moves on to the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the modern world, exposing all of the various falsehoods which have become commonplaces about each of these eras along the way.

Stark’s master thesis is that the West’s greatest strength is freedom. The Greeks, specifically the Athenians, were able to develop the great cultural and philosophical productions with which they are rightly credited because they had the intellectual freedom to do so. The Romans, on the other hand, developed little and more or less slavishly imitated the Greeks because of the stifling tyranny of the emperors and their associates. The fall of Rome and the beginning of the Middle Ages once again brought freedom, which resulted in a remarkable burst of creative energy, culminating in the rise of modern science and technology. Britain gained an early lead over the rest of Europe because of its economic and social freedom, but was eventually outdone by the United States, which granted even greater degrees of both. Freedom is the key to Western success, says Stark, and the steady erosion of this freedom today is a threat to the continuation of this success.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in a clear and concise history of Western Civilization and how the West came to dominate the modern world in all areas of human endeavor. This is, put simply, the finest, because most honest and complete, introduction to the history of the West that I have yet read.

Book Review: A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson by Christina Scott

Christopher was almost certainly the greatest historian of the 20th century. In his thought and work, he overcame the materialist reductionism of both the racialists and the Marxists, who would find the driving impetus behind the movements of human history in biological and economy, respectively. Instead, Dawson, in continuity with the great Christian tradition of insisting upon man’s radical free will, posited that it is the spiritual element in man which is the great catalyst of history. For Dawson, the creative element — the “human factor,” as he calls it in some of his works, or, simply “religion” — is the most important factor in the shaping of civilizations.

With this as his basic premise, Dawson proceeded to open up the workings of history, beginning with his first book, an examination of prehistory in the light of his thesis. Unfortunately, some of the future planned volumes in a series that would cover the full scope of human history were never completed. Dawson was forced by the circumstances of World War II and the precipitate decline in interest in their own civilization among Westerners which followed the war to publish a long series of books in which he attempted a corrective to the course upon which our civilization had set itself.

Dawson noted that just as religion is the driving factor behind a civilization, so it must be that when a civilization abandons its religion en masse, as Western Civilization began to do in the early part of the 20th century, the civilization itself must cease or at least become something altogether different. Dawson’s belief was that the salvation of Western Civilization lay in education. If the young could be made to understand and appreciate their great heritage, there might yet be a future for this heritage and Western Civilization, the greatest that the world has seen, might yet produce more wonders. Only time will reveal whether Dawson was as right on this final prognosis as he was on so much else.

This short biography of Dawson by his daughter, Christina Scott, is at once both a touching and a fascinating read. One is allowed to peer into the personal living space of one of the most erudite scholars of the modern era, to see the forces in his life which shaped him, and to see his struggle with his own genius. Mrs. Scott’s love for her father, one that extends beyond filial duty into the realm of real and fervent admiration, is evident throughout. The attentive reader cannot help but come to partake of it.

The conclusion of the book with the first several pages of a planned autobiography by Dawson, a project which never extended beyond these first few pages is an addition that further strengthens this intimacy. In these short few pages, Dawson opens himself up in a way he could not do in his other works, whether academic in nature or oriented toward a more popular audience. The reader is given the ability to see into the earliest memories of Dawson, which again reveal the various influences his upbringing had upon him.

Every human life is a work of art. The artist is given the preexistent materials. In the case of a painting, the paints, the canvass, and the brushes. In the case of sculpting, the chisel and the stone. In life, this is, as Dawson himself pointed out, our biology, our geography, our economy, and our spiritual element. It is the task of the human being to take up the creative potential within the spiritual element and with this to shape the other, material factors. This is what Dawson did with his own life. He immersed himself within that world that is the peculiar domain of human beings, the world of ideas, and through his ideas worked to expose the means by which the wider world is shaped, thereby himself shaping this wider world.

Induction into imagination

Whatever form of education is inflicted on children, they will always find mythical or heroic figures to satisfy their imagination. If they do not have King Arthur and Peredur or Sigurd and Regin, they will content themselves with Donald Duck and Dick Barton. It may even be argued that the latter are healthier because they are more spontaneous and near to contemporary reality than Branwen the daughter of Llyr or Burnt Njal. But are they more real because they are more at home in our impoverished world? I believe the old myths are better not only intrinsically,  but because they lead further and open a door into the mind as well as into the past. This was the old road which carries us back not merely for centuries but for thousands of years; the road by which every people has travelled and from which the beginnings of every literature have come. I mean the road of oral tradition. It may be that the changes of our generation, the increased speed of life and the mechanization of popular culture by the cinema and the radio have closed this road forever. But if so, those of us who remember the world before the wars have witnessed a change in human consciousness far greater than we have realized and what we are remembering is not the Victorian age but a whole series of ages — a river of immemorial time which has suddenly dried up and become lost in the seismic cleft that has opened between the present and the past.

Christopher Dawson, “Memories of a Victorian Childhood”

Book Review: 3 By Flannery O’Connor: Wise Blood / A Good Man is Hard to Find / The Violent Bear It Away

Though she is often overlooked, there is no doubt that Flannery O’Connor was one of the greatest authors of the 20th century. In her short stories and her short novels she exhibits a mastery of storytelling and a depth of insight into human nature and the relationships between human beings that rivals those typically placed on a list of greats. Had her literary output been greater, as it is relatively meager in comparison with others of her stature, and had her life been longer, as she died at the young age of 39 just as she was writing her greatest works, she might have displaced Twain as the great American author.

One of my greatest joys while reading the stories in this book was that I was able for a few of the short stories to sit in one of the beautiful squares in downtown Savannah, Georgia, with her childhood home to one side of me and the Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on my other side. It was a joy to sit among the sights which no doubt made an impression on her early consciousness while taking in her erudite examination of mankind via storytelling.

I recommend O’Connor’s work to anyone interested in reading truly wonderful literature.

Book Review: An Intellectual History of Modern Europe by Roland N. Stromberg

Intellectual History of Modern Europe

Stromberg’s treatment of modern European intellectual history is one of the best books I have yet read on the subject. He is thorough while not overwhelming in his treatment of each of the philosophical movements he discusses. He writes in a manner that keeps the interesting, provides relevant detail, directs to additional reading for those especially interested, and yet remains approachable to the non-expert. His assessments are also quite fair, even when it is clear he disagrees with the particular philosophical school being discussed.

I especially appreciate the wide range of his knowledge. Because he is so widely and deeply read in the ideas of Europeans in the last several centuries, he is able to draw together movements, individuals, and ways of thinking among which it might otherwise be difficult to discern an association. This ability to see and explain the relationships in modern intellectual history is a great help in discovering the origins and developments of the various modes of thinking and the particular ideas which they produced.

Stromberg’s assessment of the current state of affairs in thought provides some fascinating insight and some rather heartening prognoses. While it is clear that Western Civilization has entered a period of decline, Stromberg points out the other periods in its history at which it seemed Western Civilization was in serious trouble and points ahead to the hopeful possibilities for the future.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in philosophy, in modern history, in the state of the world and how it got where it is now, and, of course, anyone interested in modern European (or American) intellectual history. I can think of no worthier introduction to the subject.

Review: The Song of Roland translated by Dorothy Sayers

The Song of Roland is an often overlooked masterpiece of medieval literature. This short epic is an introduction to the virtues and ideas of chivalry. Here, the good old king Charlemagne leads the good forces of Christian France against the evil Paynim. The greatest warrior of Christendom, Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew, is slain in the battle, but the Christians achieve victory nonetheless. Charlemagne himself kills the Paynim king in single combat. He then orders of the Paynim baptized and takes the queen herself to his palace to be catechized and baptized.

The relationship between Charlemagne and Roland is an obvious allegory of the relationship of the Father and the Son in the Christian Trinity. Charlemagne is the Father, the Ancient of Days, two centuries old and possessing a long white beard. Roland is the Son who enters into the world to defeat the forces of evil through his death and resurrection. Roland is betrayed by a friend, dies and rises while on a hill with a tree and four silent witnesses. Charlemagne the Father then becomes Charlemagne the Spirit, completing the Trinity, as he leads the Christian army in the apocalyptic battle against the forces of evil and takes up the task of spreading the Gospel — both the Gospel of Christianity and the “gospel” of Roland in telling the tale of his deeds.

The Paynims are the equal and opposite of the Christians with their unholy trinity, their idolatrous statues, and their priests lacking proper ordination. Although historically the enemy were Muslims, they have become instead anti-Christians. Whatever is opposite to Christianity is what the Paynim is.

An interesting feature in the story which caught my eye is the habit of pairing. Each of the 12 great warriors of the Christians is paired with another of their group. There is a Paynim warrior who looks like a Christian and a Christian who betrays his fellow men to the Paynim. There are two deaths of Roland, one temporary and the other permanent. The betrayer Ganelon is killed through the use of water and the Queen of Spain enters new life through the waters of baptism. There are, the poet shows us, two ways: the way of life and the way of death.

This translation is by the erudite Dorothy Sayers, perhaps best known for her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” now very popular among advocates of classical education. Of particular interest here is the use to which she puts her theory of literature, most fully explicated in The Mind of the Maker, in translating this work. Her introduction serves as an excellent crash course in chivalry in addition to laying a framework for interpretation of The Song of Roland.

I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in literature, particularly in Christian/Western literature, the Middle Ages, and/or the epic. I believe, however, that any reader will enjoy this work for its wonderful storytelling and thought-provoking themes.